HILO — The County Council failed to override Mayor Billy Kenoi’s vetoes of bills relating to geothermal energy.
One of the bills, Bill 256, sought to rename the Geothermal Relocation and Community Benefits Program into the Geothermal Relocation and Public Safety Program. It would have directed funds from what is commonly known as the geothermal royalties fund toward new health studies and additional monitoring around Puna Geothermal Venture as well as prohibit the county from reselling homes and property it acquires through the geothermal relocation program. It would also have stopped the current practice of using the fund for infrastructure improvements in Puna makai.
The vote was 5-4, with five in favor of the override and four against. Six votes were needed.
The bill was introduced after dozens of Puna residents voiced concern over health issues they think may be caused by PGV.
Council Chairman Dominic Yagong, who introduced the two bills, and council members Pete Hoffmann, Angel Pilago, Brittany Smart and Brenda Ford voted for the override.
Council members Fred Blas, Donald Ikeda, Dennis Onishi and J Yoshimoto voted against it.
Some council members expressed concern over ending use of the fund for infrastructure improvements, referred to as community benefits.
Yoshimoto said that was the “tipping point” for him.
“I hope in the future we will still address the health issues surrounding that area whether or not through this bill or another bill,” he said.
In response, Yagong said he would introduce new legislation to add community benefits back into the fund if the override passed.
His comments did not appear to change the no votes.
Yoshimoto said after the vote that the offer came too late.
Critics of the bill also said they believe property values would be impacted by properties not being resold, and that health studies could be covered by another account, the geothermal asset fund.
In defense of his bill, Yagong noted that many bill opponents also call for new studies and that uses of both funds can be interchanged, including relocations. The difference, he said, is the geothermal royalties fund gets a lot more money, about $500,000 a year, and can better handle the activities.
“Both sides are saying the same thing folks,” he said. “What we are trying to do is allow that to happen.”
Kenoi said he vetoed the bill because he believed the asset fund could be used instead, and voiced concern over the cost of demolishing or securing acquired properties if the county could not sell them.
Onishi criticized the legislation for being overly complicated, and said the council could have saved itself some grief by simply adding health studies or monitoring to the fund without making other changes.
“We wouldn’t have to spend all this time dealing with the (situation) we have here,” he said.
Hoffmann said he was “baffled” that Kenoi would veto the bills.
“It’s terrifying for me to think on the issue of public health and safety, the most fundamental issue we face, we can’t find some measure of cooperation with the administration,” he said.
Councilwoman Brittany Smart said she was disappointed by representatives of PGV wearing buttons supporting the veto.
“They told us they were not taking a side,” she said.
“And yet today they were wearing those buttons.”
Ford, who referenced the movie “Erin Brockovich,” said she was disappointed in the council members who didn’t support the override and added that the asset fund isn’t sufficient to do the health studies.
She said studies are needed to get to the bottom of health complaints from those who believe PGV may be to blame.
“I have no idea on the cost,” Ford said, referring to health studies. “I’m telling you the people who are sick are really sick; they are not making this up.”
The other piece of legislation, Bill 257, would have required the county to develop an emergency response and evacuation plan for Puna Geothermal Venture.
The bill failed by a vote of 5-4, with Hoffmann, Pilago, Smart, Yagong and Ford in favor of the override and Blas, Ikeda, Onishi and Yoshimoto against.
During discussions, Hoffmann said it was “simply not comprehensible” that the county’s “generic evacuation plan” is the reason to veto the bill. “We need leadership. We don’t need politics,” he said.
Ikeda asked Civil Defense Agency Administrator Ben Fuata if the county has a plan.
“To answer your question, Mr. Ikeda, is that we do have protocols.” Asked to explain those protocols in detail, Fuata described three levels of alerts based on the level of hydrogen sulfide gas detected, ranging from 0.05 parts per million (911 alerted, emergency responders dispatched to PGV) to 10 ppm (emergency shelter opened for voluntary evacuations) to 30 ppm (more shelters opened; first responders go house-to-house and ask people to leave the area for the duration of the emergency).
Onishi asked Fuata about whether he planned to have a geothermal evacuation drill. The Civil Defense administrator said that he did have a plan for one, but it wasn’t approved by Kenoi.
Smart asked how long it would take to evacuate the area.
“My concern is we will do it in an orderly fashion and we have our threshold of 30 parts per million before we can get up to health hazards,” Fuata said.
Fuata’s answer did not seem to satisfy the council.
“Everything that you’ve said for the last 45 minutes is exactly why we need to have a plan,” Yagong told Fuata, saying to his council members, “Let’s override the mayor’s veto so it will mandate the mayor to go do it.”
“You have indicated, over and over again, there is no plan in place,” an irritated Hoffmann said. “It’s not your fault.”
But before they could discuss and vote, council members listened a full day of testimony that started shortly after 8:45 a.m. and continued, with limited interruptions, until 5:20 p.m.
Following a campaign by both sides to get the word out about Wednesday’s council meeting, 99 people, including many from Leilani Estates, testified both for and against the veto overrides. A number of testifiers spoke on other issues pending before the council that were not related to geothermal issues.
Supporters of the bills spoke of a litany of illnesses they traced to PGV, from tumors to strokes, cysts and autoimmune disorders, which they attributed to their increased susceptibility to volcanic gases and emissions from the plant. Prior to the meeting, they rallied outside the Hawaii County building in Hilo with signs and a painted caricature of Mayor Billy Kenoi.
Opponents of the bills wore pins on their shirts reading “NO OVERRIDE” with a red circle and a line crossed through it.
“I’m pleased that the mayor has vetoed these bills,” said Jay Bondesen. “Bill 256 is incomplete and Bill 257 is unnecessary.”
Petra Wiesenbauer, one of those who spearheaded the effort to sustain Kenoi’s veto of the geothermal bills, delivered to the council 230 signatures from an online petition, most of whom came from the Big Island, and 130 signatures from people who lived within 3 miles of the plant.
“We want you to know that we are not into agitation, confrontation and accusations, but we feel we need to rise up as a group to make our case heard,” Wiesenbauer said. “We are no longer a silent majority, as we are standing up to save our neighborhood.”
Included among the testifiers were 10 people who identified themselves as employees of PGV. Each said that he or she did not have any detrimental health effects from spending many years at “ground zero,” as they called it.
One of the supporters of the mayor’s vetoes drew loud boos from members of the public when he suggested that if some people could survive the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, then people will survive living next to geothermal plants. The chorus of boos prompted Yagong to call a brief recess.
Russell Ruderman, a candidate for the state Senate, took the opposite position. Regarding the evacuation plan bill, he said that “I really don’t understand why anyone would oppose that … it’s only a matter of time before we need an evacuation plan.” One of his opponents, state Rep. Bob Herkes, was one of the signers of the petition against the bill.
“Who would want to knowingly live in the shadow of a beast that has shown its teeth in the (geothermal well) blowout of 1991, with the lack of an evacuation plan?” asked James Hedgecock, who is trying to sell his home in Leilani Estates.
Mike Kaleikini, the PGV plant manager, told the council that he did not dispute some of the health issues raised. “We support additional studies,” he said.
Toward the end of the marathon meeting, the council also failed to override another veto by Kenoi on a bill requiring payments into the county’s post-employee benefits account, commonly known as the GASB 45 fund.
That vote, shortly before 8:30 p..m., was 4-5 with Blas, Ikeda, Onishi, Pilago and Yoshimoto voting no.
Yagong also introduced that bill.