Elevated levels of sulfur dioxide close schools, Pahoa post office

  • USGS photo

    This aerial image shows fissure No. 17 at about 7 a.m. Thursday northeast of Lanipuna Gardens.

  • Cindy Ellen Russell/Honolulu Star-Advertiser via AP

    A plume of volcanic steam rises from the alignment of fissures in Kilauea volcano’s East Rift Zone on Wednesday.

  • USGS photo

    An aerial view of ground cracks on Pohoiki Road during an overflight of the eruptive fissure area at about 7 a.m. Thursday. Cracks continued to open and widen, some with horizontal and vertical offsets, in the area during the previous 24 hours.

  • U.S. Geological Survey photo

    A Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologist on Thursday monitors the vertical offset across the cracks on Nohea Street in Leilani Estates. Cracks caused by the underlying intrusion of magma expanded significantly during the previous 24 hours, some with horizontal and vertical offsets, into the lower East Rift Zone.

A new lava fissure opened Thursday in Leilani Estates after a day of heavy air pollution in Pahoa and other parts of lower Puna that prompted closures of schools and a post office.

The vent was located on Makamae Street and flows of pahoehoe lava were generated.


It was labeled fissure No. 21 after a few other vents were reclassified as a single eruption site. The eruption started May 3 in Leilani, and has displaced about 2,000 people. Thirty-nine structures, mostly homes, have been destroyed.

Geologists say that portion of Kilauea’s East Rift Zone continues to expand with new magma and more eruptions are expected. Large ground cracks as wide as a yard were reported in Leilani.

Steve Brantley, deputy scientist-in-charge at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said a GPS instrument used for tracking ground deformation had moved as much as 6 inches in 24 hours.

“That’s an indication the rift zone is being forced apart,” he said.

Fissure No. 17 located near Halekamahina Road between Pohoiki Road and Highway 132 was active but its flow front had progressed little in the past day. Other fissures were reactivated in Lanipuna Gardens and northeast of the small subdivision, located on the south side of Puna Geothermal Venture.

Gov. David Ige said efforts to kill three wells at PGV to prevent unabated releases of hydrogen sulfide are ongoing. The geothermal power plant is located near some of the fissures and has shut down, but concerns about the potential for uncontrolled gas releases remain.

“We are focused on assuring that we can mitigate the risk to the community, but we are wanting to be careful and smart with how we are doing it,” Ige said.

The plan is to fill the wells with water and then cap them. Ige said one well is in the process of being quelched, and a second pump was flown in.

Talmadge Magno, Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator, estimated 20 homes are still occupied in Leilani following evacuations.

Weak winds helped trap some of the sulfur dioxide from the eruption on Kilauea’s East Rift Zone, leading to temporary spikes that caused the closure of schools and the post office in Pahoa.

Conditions were expected to ease by today and emissions are being carefully tracked by a ring of monitors set up around the fissures.

Edward Grant, a Nanawale Estates resident who is living at the shelter at the Pahoa Community Center, said he had a hard time breathing because of the sulfur dioxide levels.

“That was intense,” he said.

Elijah Guera, another evacuee at the Pahoa shelter, said he started to get a knot in his stomach at 3 or 4 a.m.

“My throat was starting to hurt,” he said. “It started getting really bad and everyone else was running around with masks on. That’s when I knew it was sulfur dioxide. We’re about ready to head out to Hilo and try to get away from that bad air.”

Levels of sulfur dioxide, also known as SO2, were detected in Pahoa as high as 2.7 parts per million at the old fire station. Civil Defense considers anything above 1 ppm as color code “red,” which means it can start affecting the general population.

Magno said such readings were temporary spikes and didn’t warrant evacuations.

“At that level most healthy people can be in that stuff for awhile,” he said, regarding readings above 1 ppm.

Fenix Grange, with the state Department of Health, said the duration of the exposure is what’s most concerning.

“There are scenarios even at 100 (ppm) you can be out there for 15 minutes,” she said.

“We don’t want any of the public at 5 (ppm),” Grange added. “A lot of it has to do with that exposure time period.”

The highest reading of the day was above 10 ppm near Opihikao.

Grange said firefighters were dispatched with hand-held monitors to provide additional readings but she didn’t think they found anything as extreme. She referred to it as an unconfirmed spike.

Dr. Hart Miller of Puna Community Medical Center said he sent an elderly patient to the hospital Thursday because she had trouble breathing due to the air pollution.

“It was pretty thick this morning,” he said. “It was probably the densest vog I’ve seen in the past 10 years.

“You could see it, you could smell it, you could taste it.”

Miller said he saw seven to 10 patients that morning, with half experiencing complications related to the sulfur dioxide.

Alvin Bronstein, chief of emergency medical services with the state Department of Health, said long-term exposure to sulfur dioxide can cause health issues, but he doesn’t foresee that happening yet. He described exposure levels as acute rather than chronic and said wind patterns reduce the risk.

“Right now we’re staying at acute,” Bronstein said. “Chronic low-level exposure can cause some issues, but I’m not expecting that right now.”

Jim Kauahikaua, HVO geophysicist, said the fissures are producing as much sulfur dioxide as the eruption at the summit.

In addition to Pahoa, shelters are open at the Keaau Community Center and Sure Foundation, located on Pohaku Circle.


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

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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