A conflicted Windward Planning Commission, faced with two dozen speakers asking it to slow down a study of health impacts of the Puna Geothermal Venture plant, on Thursday told the county administration to seek input from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The advice from federal agencies, along with annual reports to the commission, are two new conditions added to its approval of a request that $750,000 be taken from the geothermal benefits fund to pay for a three-year study to determine if there are health effects on Puna residents that can be linked to geothermal energy development.
The study, in the works long before the Aug. 7 release of hydrogen sulfide into the air when the plant shut down in the face of Tropical Storm Iselle, will focus specifically on effects on the central nervous and respiratory systems and anxiety disorder symptoms.
The release increased a longstanding anxiety about the health effects of the plant. Retired Navy Capt. Tom Travis, a former military consultant, along with his wife Laura Travis, a retired nurse, plotted 109 health reports on a map, showing concentrations downwind of the plant immediately following the release.
A parade of PGV neighbors came to the microphone, describing sore throats, blurred vision, headaches, tingling sensations in arms, rashes, nausea and unconsciousness. One woman said she experienced a spontaneous abortion shortly after moving near the plant.
“What happened was basically our mini Fukushima,” said Kate Baldwin, referring to the nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan following the 2011 tsunami. “We can’t let that happen to us.”
“It was just absolutely nerve-shattering,” when the plant vented in the midst of the storm, said Greg Adams, a commercial farmer who lives close to the plant. “We feel like canaries in the coal mine and we are getting gassed.”
Most urged the commission to delay the health study until more data could be collected following the most recent release. They also wanted the study to include the acute effects of a hydrogen sulfide release, in addition to chronic health effects associated with living near the plant.
Many also wanted time to expand the study to nail down the health impacts. And, some said, they wanted more assurances that the study will be conducted by an independent source without ties to the industry.
“I don’t think we have money to waste determining something that we already know,” said Bob Petricci.
PGV representatives were in the audience, but didn’t testify at the hearing. A PGV spokesman told Stephens Media Hawaii on Tuesday that employees working during the release have not reported health effects.
The request for proposals for the study is slated to go out early next year and the study could take up to three years to complete. County administration representatives said they saw no need to delay the study, because data from the most recent release will be available by the time the work begins.
“It certainly feels to anyone in the room that something is going on, and it’s up to the study to determine the extent of that, and the causes of that,” said Jay Maddock, a university of Hawaii at Manoa public health science professor who has been retained by the county to help design and oversee the study.
The commission voted unanimously for the compromise following two failed motions and a closed-door session.
“I’m the kind of guy if offered a cupcake now or a cupcake in a week from now, I’ll take the cupcake now,” said Commissioner Gregory Henkel. “I want the funding that’s been offered to be used.”