Bill limiting county oversight advances

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Lawmakers have advanced a bill curbing the ability of counties to pass their own laws regulating geothermal power plants.

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Lawmakers have advanced a bill curbing the ability of counties to pass their own laws regulating geothermal power plants.

Three Senate committees voted late Wednesday afternoon in favor of an amended version of SB 2535, which gives the state exclusive authority to regulate “geothermal resources development and geothermal resources exploration,” unless it delegates that power to the counties.

It will next be sent to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Sen. Lorraine Inouye, the bill’s main sponsor, said she thinks the state is the proper authority to regulate drilling and other geothermal activities, though she acknowledged Puna Geothermal Venture — the state’s only geothermal power plant operator — requested that she introduce the legislation.

“They brought me the issue and I kind of composed it in-house,” she said.

While requested by the company, Inouye, a North Hawaii Democrat, said she still thinks the bill is in the public’s interest because regarding “safety and health issues, the state is more qualified to do that than the county.”

The measure was prompted by Hawaii County’s ban on nighttime geothermal drilling, adopted in 2012 following complaints from neighbors of PGV.

The power plant operator is currently facing a lawsuit for ignoring the law while drilling another well last year, a point emphasized by Sen. Russell Ruderman, whose district includes PGV, while speaking against the bill during committee hearings Tuesday.

He said the Legislature should not interfere with county regulations nor ongoing litigation.

“This bill is a pre-emption of county authority,” Ruderman said.

“It’s anti-home rule and undermines counties’ authority to protect public health and safety.”

In written testimony in support of the measure, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said the bill is needed to clarify the state is the “regulatory authority” for geothermal development.

PGV argued its geothermal resource permit overrides the county’s drilling restrictions and that stopping drilling during certain stages could be a safety issue and would prolong the activity.

Mike Kaleikini, a PGV spokesman, said the 38-megawatt plant remained well within its “regulatory noise levels” but received about two dozen noise complaints during drilling, with about half from the same household.

As of Thursday afternoon, he said he was awaiting approval to answer other questions from the newspaper.

In response to the around-the-clock drilling, a group called the Puna Pono Alliance filed a lawsuit against PGV in Third Circuit Court.

Bob Petricci, vice president of the group who testified against the bill, said the case hasn’t been settled.

The original version of the bill would have allowed counties to keep authority to pass regulations if a geothermal operation exists within a mile of homes.

Petricci said the amended version was introduced at committee hearings Tuesday, giving testifiers little time to review it.

A Senate spokeswoman said that didn’t violate Senate rules since the changes weren’t considered “substantive.”

If passed, the bill would be the second time the Legislature has enacted laws affecting county oversight of geothermal projects in the past four years.

In 2012, lawmakers passed a bill that, in addition to eliminating geothermal subzones, removed language covering the geothermal resource permit process at the county level.

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Efforts to reinstate county permitting authority have so far failed to gain traction.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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