On Tuesday morning, Puna residents came out in force to testify on several bills proposing changes to the way the county spends geothermal royalties.
Testimony during the morning was weighted heavily against the bills.
“The financial impact to Puna homeowners will be devastating,” Leilani Estates resident Norma Jean Blair said. “We have a hard time getting homeowners insurance as it is. … This is a financial crisis we cannot afford. There has been no proof offered that the geothermal plant has impacted our lives or health.”
Bill 256 would establish a geothermal buffer zone about one mile from the Puna Geothermal Plant; Bill 257 directs Civil Defense Director Benedict Fuata to create an emergency response and evacuation plan for each geothermal power production plant on the island; and Bill 267 amends the Geothermal Asset Fund to add the community benefits program and create a community benefits advisory committee.
By the afternoon, bill proponents surpassed opponents, with many residents expressing their outrage over comments Fuata made over the weekend in which he said the county doesn’t need a new emergency response plan.
Testimony on the geothermal bills, and two measures relating to hunting, stretched out over seven hours, with 99 people having signed up to voice their opinions.
Council Chairman Dominic Yagong said the county’s Real Property Tax Division said the county relocating residents would not drive down property values, because county purchases of homes cannot be used for comparable sales when home values are appraised.
Puna Councilman Fred Blas unsuccessfully tried, again, to postpone the vote on Bill 256 until PGV or Department of Health officials can make a presentation to council members in July. He also questioned the motives of people coming out against geothermal production in general.
“Now all of the sudden people are coming down with illnesses so they can get relocated,” Blas said. “Eighteen years, PGV has had one medical claim.”
Bill 256 passed with six affirmative votes; Blas, and Hilo council members Donald Ikeda and J Yoshimoto, voted against the measure.
Bill 257, requiring the emergency evacuation plan, passed with seven affirmative votes. Ikeda and Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi were the two dissenting votes.
The final geothermal measure, amending from which fund geothermal community benefits can be paid, hit a snag when Planning Director Bobby Jean Leithead Todd said the $50,000 the county collects each year for geothermal mitigation cannot be spent for community benefits or scholarships.
Yagong eventually withdrew Bill 267.
“I want to bring something more palatable that would meet legal demands,” he said.
Hunting testimony was nearly unanimous in favor of the county outlawing aerial hunting, a measure required by a federal mandate to protect the palila, and in favor of creating an island game commission. Both measures passed unanimously. The game management commission bill requires a third reading, because it creates a charter amendment on which island residents will cast their votes in November.
Several testifiers called for a federal environmental impact statement to study whether the aerial hunts have contributed to the birds’ declining populations since 1978.
“This project has failed for 30 years,” hunter Colin Onaka said. “We want to send a message to the state.”
Another testifier noted the U.S. Army had to complete an EIS for high altitude training, and in that process had to limit flights over the palila’s critical habitat to less than three minutes at no lower than 2,000 feet elevation. The aerial hunting flights last longer and are at lower elevations.
State officials have told the county it does not have the authority to prevent the state from conducting the aerial hunts.
South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford criticized DLNR for the aerial hunts.
“I find aerial hunting abhorrent,” she said, adding a recent North Kona cattle shoot was a “heinous crime. It changed my perspective forever on aerial hunts. … None of us would ever train our children to torture small animals. Why would we torture a large animal to death? I will not ever trust DLNR on something like this again.”
Ka‘u Councilwoman Brittany Smart said DLNR’s approach, with the aerial hunts, is inhumane. She and Ford emphasized their environmentalist leanings, but said aerial hunts do not match with environmentalist beliefs.