Coast Guard creates ‘safety zone’ near lava

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The Coast Guard is requiring boaters to keep their distance from the Kamokuna ocean entry where lava flows into the sea.

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The Coast Guard is requiring boaters to keep their distance from the Kamokuna ocean entry where lava flows into the sea.

On Tuesday, it began enforcing a “temporary safety zone” that requires vessels to stay at least 300 meters (984 feet) from the ocean entry through Sept. 28.

The Coast Guard cites hazards such as the unstable sea cliff, volcanic shrapnel and toxic gases as reasons for the restriction, which could become permanent.

“According to the (Hawaiian Volcano Observatory), large and dense fragments ejected during delta collapses can be thrown in all directions from the point of collapse, including out to sea,” the Coast Guard said in a press release.

Shane Tarpin of Lava Ocean Tours said he sees the safety zone as unnecessary and that it will hurt his business.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve never seen any incident at the ocean entry on the boat,” he said. “It’s very arbitrary.”

Tarpin said this is the first time a safety zone has been established. He said he would get as close as 100 feet to the ocean entry on average before Tuesday. The latest entry began last July.

“That’s why people come out on this boat ride, to get close and feel the heat,” Tarpin said.

“Three hundred yards is too far to experience the lava in the fashion we would like to show it.”

The Coast Guard didn’t return a request for comment. It noted in the press release that the U.S. Geological Survey recommends 300 meters as a minimum safe distance.

In February, the Coast Guard boarded two vessels operating illegal boat tours.

There are four licensed lava boat tour operators, including Lava Ocean Tours. The other three are Moku Nui Lava Tours, Kalapana Cultural Tours and Hawaiian Lava Boat Tours.

The ocean entry is inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which maintains a closed area on land around the lava flow.

Chief Ranger John Broward said the park issued about 140 citations to people entering the closed area since July. Fines are $130. The flow is viewable from a distance.

HVO’s website on Tuesday said the lava flow was beginning to rebuild a small delta at the ocean entry following past delta collapses. A lava “firehose” feature was not consistently visible.

A breakout that started March 5 is advancing downslope, with most of the activity less than a mile from the vent.

The Coast Guard is accepting comments on the safety zone until noon June 3 via www.regulations.gov.

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A meeting on the issue is slated for 5 p.m. May 8 at the Aupuni Center conference room, 101 Pauahi St., Hilo.

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

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