Council still vexed over geothermal health study funding


The Windward Planning Commission adjourned Thursday still looking for answers on how to allocate funds for a geothermal health study.

The commission, after hearing testimony from study proponents and discussing the issue in executive session, said it still needed clarity on how a rarely used fund can be tapped to determine whether Puna Geothermal Venture is causing health problems in lower Puna.

It voted 4-0 to direct the county Planning Department to provide information at its next meeting in November regarding the process for procuring a study and someone to conduct it, whether a study qualifies as mitigation for negative impacts from the plant, and whether a claims adjuster is needed.

The questions arose because of language in the geothermal asset fund limiting its use to mitigating problems caused by PGV and requiring a claims adjuster to assess proper compensation.

As some noted at the meeting, the $2.1 million fund was established to compensate for loss of property or expenses incurred by nearby residents as a result of the plant and not necessarily to conduct a health study, leading to the current confusion.

Whether a health study is needed, and how one should be funded, has been a hot topic since the County Council held a meeting on geothermal impacts in April.

At the meeting, and ever since, the council has heard from dozens of Puna residents alleging or suspecting the plant is causing health problems in the community.

A proposal to use a separate account, known as the Geothermal Relocation and Community Benefits Program fund, for a study fell flat after a veto from Mayor Billy Kenoi in July. Since then, attention has shifted to the asset fund as a potential source, which the administration has argued is more appropriate.

But the fund, as demonstrated at Thursday’s meeting, presents its own hurdles since it lacks a process for handling such a request.

Still, Chairman Zendo Kern said there’s reason to proceed cautiously.

“This needs to be done right, it really does,” he said.

The issue isn’t completely on hold in the meantime.

On Sept. 24, the county hired a mediator to help determine what the study should encompass.

Peter Adler of Honolulu will be responsible for developing a working group to make recommendations regarding a health study, and helping to develop consensus. His $50,000 contract runs through March 31.

Robert Petricci of the Puna Pono Alliance, which has already submitted a health study proposal to the commission, said he has been contacted to meet with Adler.

He said he hopes the group will be able to participate in the process, but wishes it would work faster.

Petricci also said it’s important that any study uses good data, and not rely solely on existing air monitors, which he believes aren’t sufficient.

“We want to get it done right this time,” he said, echoing comments made by Kern and others at the meeting.

Planning Director Bobby Jean Leithead Todd said the asset fund has been previously used to buy hand-held monitors for a PGV neighbor and provide compensation for crops lost by a former nearby resident who was relocated.