PAHOA, Hawaii >> Lava buried a Puna geothermal energy well Sunday and is putting a real test to a public safety plan that had been under intense scrutiny by Hawaii government leaders.
Gov. David Ige said residents in the area, some of whom live or had lived about a quarter-mile from the Puna Geothermal Venture site, are safe and shouldn’t worry.
“The PGV site is stable,” he said during a press conference late Sunday afternoon as the nearest lobe of molten rock was estimated to be around 6 feet from the well.
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“We believe that we have mitigated any risk to the community,” he said. “Our main focus — from both the mayor (Harry Kim) and myself — has been on the safety and security of the community. We will continue to focus on that. Every single decision that we are making (is) on behalf of the people to keep them safe and informed and aware of what’s happening.”
The fear concerning lava burying geothermal wells is that it could breach the shafts, which go down 6,000 to 8,000 feet where they tap steam and hot water to power turbines producing electricity. Such a breach could cause an uncontrolled release of hydrogen sulfide or other potentially dangerous volcanic gases.
Ige said he’s confident this won’t happen based on work over the last 2-1/2 weeks by a task force that assessed and advised on emergency plans PGV previously devised specifically for a lava event such as this.
Risk mitigation work included “quenching” two geothermal production wells by filling them with water that acts as a heavy plug to contain the gases and hot liquid far below the surface. A third production well was filled with barite, a claylike substance that hardens when heated. This was done because water quenching didn’t work.
Also, heavy metal valves designed to withstand intense heat from lava were closed, equipment above the surface well heads was removed and pits containing the closed well heads were filled with cinder.
Ige said there is constant hydrogen sulfide gas monitoring in the area, and if any is detected Hawaii County Civil Defense will issue an immediate alert using sirens, radio and door-to-door notification in any affected area.
Michael Kaleikini, PGV’s director of Hawaii affairs, said he is “exponentially” more confident that protected wells buried by lava will be safe.
Kaleikini said the pit feature exists so PGV can bore through cooled lava and reactivate the wells that are marked by GPS coordinates. So it may be possible to restart the plant one day, he said.
PGV closed its power plant, which typically generates 25 percent of Hawaii island’s electricity, shortly after lava began coming out of ground fissures in the adjacent Leilani Estates subdivision May 3.
The task force was led by Tom Travis, administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, along with Kim and Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno.
Travis said he expects nothing to happen due to lava covering quenched and sealed wells.
Only three production wells closest to the lava have been treated this way. A fourth well in the area is an injection well and doesn’t connect to the deep heat source. There are six other wells on the property, including at least two production wells, but they are on land that is farther away and 50 to 150 feet higher in elevation.
Roxanne Kala, a teacher at Kamehameha Schools in Keaau, was at her childhood home in Leilani Estates on Sunday, helping her parents remove belongings.
She said she isn’t worried about wells getting buried by lava. She’s more concerned about her family home, which is now about a block from an expanding lava flow.
“It’s grown massively,” she said of the flow, adding that she respects the power of Hawaiian fire goddess Pele, prays for safety and was helping her parents find closure with the lava threat so near.
“Witnessing her (Pele’s) creation as well as her devastation has been part of our life,” she said.
The lava near the Kala family home is from fissure 7, which advanced onto the PGV site Saturday, then paused early Sunday. But by around midday Sunday, fissure 7 was spouting lava an estimated 180 feet into the air and fed the flow that covered the well.
At 7:45 p.m. the county Civil Defense Agency ordered an immediate evacuation for Leilani Estates residents on Nohea and Luana streets between Leilani Avenue and Kahukai Street. Also, Kupono Street between Malama Street and Leilani Avenue.
Previously, lava from another direction and fissure had encroached on PGV property and contributed to the urgent government involvement in PGV emergency plans. That earlier flow, however, dried up.
Jim Kauahikaua of the U.S. Geological Survey said fissure 7 was the biggest lava producer among five fissures active Sunday.
Lava from this fissure also is moving south and possibly could create a third flow into the ocean in the next day or two, he said. Two other flows continue to enter the ocean near MacKenzie State Recreation Area.
One new fissure, 24, opened Sunday, and after relatively brief lava production, mounds of steaming rock in Leilani Estates were left across a section of Kupono Street.
Robert Henry, a 16-year Leilani Estates resident who was observing the scene at fissure 24 while on a mission to remove furniture from his distant house, said it looked like the landscape was firebombed.
“This is what it looked like in Vietnam when they dropped napalm,” he said. “This is surreal. The sulfur on the rocks. It’s amazing.”
In total, new lava has covered about 2,372 acres.