HILO — Puna may get its geothermal health study anyway.
A group called the Puna Pono Alliance is seeking $200,000 from the county’s geothermal asset fund to study potential health impacts of Puna Geothermal Venture.
The group, made up of nearby residents to PGV, already has a study outline and formal proposal in hand, prepared by Neuro-Test Inc. of California.
The proposal, which a group member said was submitted to the county last week, may give new life to efforts to study the impacts, if any, of the nearly 20-year-old plant on the surrounding community.
The County Council on Wednesday voted against overriding mayoral vetoes of two geothermal bills, one allowing the Geothermal Relocation and Community Benefits Program to be used for health studies and additional air monitoring.
Any use of the asset fund, created to mitigate impacts from PGV, would have to be approved by the Windward Planning Commission.
PGV pays about $50,000 into the fund each year. It now has about $2.1 million that has never been used.
On Thursday, County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong, who introduced the two bills, submitted a letter to Windward Planning Commission Director Zendo Kern requesting clarification on the process for approving such a request.
Kern said in a phone interview that he was unclear on the process since it has never been addressed.
The soonest it could be discussed is the commission’s next meeting Sept. 6.
Agenda items are established by the county Planning Department, he said.
Planning Director Bobby Jean Leithead-Todd said she hadn’t seen the proposal but added that any county-funded study may have to go through a procurement process.
This isn’t the first time the asset fund has been brought up during the geothermal debate.
Some critics of Yagong’s attempt to partially repurpose the relocation and community benefits fund, covered by geothermal royalties, said they thought the asset fund would be better used for health studies and would not require new legislation.
Those critics included the administration.
Yagong said he preferred the other fund be used since projects would be overseen by the Civil Defense and not the Planning Commission.
But he said Thursday his focus is on getting the studies done.
“The public doesn’t care which fund it comes out of,” he said.
The group’s proposal involves testing 300 people, including 210 who live near the plant, and 90 “unexposed comparison subjects” from Hilo and other communities.
They would be tested for symptoms of exposure to toxins, including loss of balance, hearing and psychological impairments.
Paul Kuykendall, a member of the group, said the goal is to see if there is any environmental cause for health problems of people living near the plant.
Several nearby residents have testified to the council that they suffer from respiratory or other illnesses that they suspect could be caused by hydrogen sulfide emissions from PGV.
The plant says it has a closed system, meaning it doesn’t emit gas unless there is a leak.
PGV has had six air emission violations but none of the emissions were considered high enough to be a public health risk.
The largest single emission was in 2005, when air monitors detected 0.789 parts per million of hydrogen sulfide. It takes 50 parts per million for the gas to act as a “respiratory irritant,” according to the state Department of Health.
The agency has done two studies, both limited to air quality, that also found no health risks from the plant.
Still, some residents are concerned and Kuykendall said he hopes the study would provide some answers.
“It seems that everybody, people are every side of the issue, say we need to find out what’s really going on,” he said.
The proposal doesn’t make mention of vog from Kilauea, which includes toxins.
Kuykendall said the control group would likely take into account background levels, including those contributed by volcanic activity.
Yagong said he also plans to submit a proposal for air monitoring funding to the Planning Commission.
PGV has three air monitors around the edge of its property and the DOH has one in the vicinity.
The DOH used to have three near the plant, but two were removed in the last few years due to funding constraints, said Lisa Young, an environmental health specialist with the agency.
Young said the focus has been on monitoring vog which directed funds away from PGV monitoring.
She said current monitors are considered sufficient though wind direction may determine whether the one operated by the DOH signals a leak.
Asked if it would it make sense to have more, Young said, “Not for just one source. They have three monitors on the perimeter. They are in compliance with their permit.”
Kuykendall said the DOH wasn’t asked to do the study because the group isn’t convinced the agency would be entirely objective.
Young said she couldn’t respond to that comment.
She said she isn’t aware of any discussion at the agency on increasing monitoring or conducting any new studies.
“I have a feeling that might change,” Young said.