The Hawaii County Council gave initial approval to a pair of geothermal bills Wednesday.
The legislation, proposed by council Chairman Dominic Yagong, would amend how the Big Island spends its geothermal royalties and mandate evacuation plans for current and future geothermal power plants.
The county’s revenue from the plant is currently used to fund capital projects and services in lower Puna, including construction of the Pahoa council office and security at county facilities. It’s also used to move residents away from the Puna Geothermal Venture power plant.
In response to renewed public opposition to geothermal power, Yagong proposed only using the fund for geothermal-related issues, such as air quality monitoring, health studies and funding relocations.
The fund was initially established in the 1980s to fund the voluntary relocations, but that was changed in 2008 to also allow other uses.
The council passed the first reading of the proposed amendments to the royalty policy in a 5-4 vote with council members Fred Blas, Donald Ikeda, Dennis Onishi and J Yoshimoto voting no.
A separate bill to mandate evacuation plans passed in a 8-1 vote with Ikeda voting no.
Both bills could have their final vote as early as June 19.
The votes came after council members Brenda Ford and Angel Pilago strongly criticized PGV, which runs the state’s only geothermal power plant.
“I think we should relocate Puna Geothermal Venture not our families,” Pilago said to applause from members of the audience.
Some Puna residents claim that the plant is harming their health.
Ford said the county needs to get to the bottom of those concerns and criticized PGV for asking to provide a presentation on its safety measures before considering the matter further, alleging that the company was trying to delay a vote.
Tom Yeh, PGV attorney, said the intent of the presentation is to correct misconceptions with the plant.
Yagong said the presentation can be held July 2.
PGV Manager Michael Kaleikini said the plant is not trying to affect the vote.
“We don’t have a position as to how the money is spent,” he said. “We just want to provide factual information.”
Kaleikini also said during testimony that the state Department of Health does not consider the plant a health hazard.
The votes followed testimony from dozens of people. Several spoke against moving funds away from capital projects and other services.
Jon Olson said the bill “takes money that should go to community benefits” and “relieves PGV of its obligation to protect members of the community.”
John Brian, who supports the bill, said the geothermal royalties should not be squandered on “nice little perks” in the community.
“They could have spent a little less and bought some safety equipment,” he said.
The county gets about $500,000 a year in revenue from PGV — and currently has a $4.2 million balance.
The county, which has bought eight properties through the relocation program, buys homes at up to 130 percent of appraised value and then auctions the home and land.
Yagong’s legislation would stop the county from auctioning the properties. It also only allows homeowners within a mile of the plant to be eligible. Seven homeowners have applied for relocation since the geothermal debate was reignited over the last few months.
As for evacuations, County Civil Defense Coordinator Benedict Fuata said last month he was working on an evacuation plan that he hopes to test in July. Bobby Command, executive assistant to Mayor Billy Kenoi, said in a voicemail Wednesday evening that those plans are being postponed.