Honua Ola gets go-ahead to drill deeper

  • Tribune-Herald file photo A tour is lead through Honua Ola Bioenergy plant, then known as Hu Honua Bioenergy, in 2017 in Pepeekeo.

The state Department of Health granted approval to Honua Ola Bioenergy, formerly known as Hu Honua Bioenergy, to drill three underground injection control wells to 800 feet at its power plant under construction at Pepeekeo.

The wells are designed to inject brackish industrial wastewater into the ground. Three wells were previously approved and are already drilled to a depth of 400 feet.

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A disposal test conducted Feb. 1 on one of the wells resulted in the disposal of 2,950 gallons of water per minute, considerably slower than the 5,000 gallon-per-minute rate each well has to dispose wastewater to meet project requirements.

The failure of the disposal test at the 400-foot depth prompted Honua Ola to submit an application in July to drill to the 800-foot level. The tests are to ensure the least impact on groundwater.

“By drilling the wells deeper, I think the water has more time to go through the aquifer,” said Warren Lee, president of Honua Ola. “We believe that it’s safe, that the water that we inject back into the aquifer will not harm the ocean environment or the aquifer.”

After the wells are constructed to 800 feet, they will be tested and evaluated again. According to a public notice issued Monday by DOH, the wells will then “be capped or secured in a manner that will prevent their use until a permit to operate the injection wells is issued.”

Once the injection wells have been drilled again and tested, the final report on groundwater impacts and monitoring data will be made available for public review and a public comment period will begin prior to a decision on whether Honua Ola will be granted a permit to operate.

The opening of the comment period will be announced and posted at http://health.hawaii.gov/sdwb/public-notices/.

Honua Ola is also in the process of seeking approval from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to deepen its supply well — which provides the cooling water for the plant that later becomes the brackish wastewater injected back into the aquifer.

“The supply well permit application that we have is for us to go from 400 feet deep to 1,200 feet deep,” Lee noted.

A scheduled Aug. 28 contested case hearing by the DOH Clean Water Branch about a $25,000 fine levied last December on the company for discharging industrial wastewater into the ocean on Nov. 9 was canceled after Honua Ola agreed to a negotiated settlement.

Between 3,500 gallons and 32,500 gallons of treated industrial wastewater — composed of fresh water, acidic metal cleaning solution and residue from descaling of the boiler — were discharged, according to the DOH.

“We are in discussions, though it’s still ongoing,” Lee said about settlement negotiations.

The 30-megawatt power plant, if completed, would burn chipped logs from eucalyptus and other trees as fuel. Lee described it as “a renewable, sustainable energy project that is firm power that’s available 24/7.”

“This is renewable energy to displace the fossil fuel generators that are now on the (Hawaii Electric Light Co.) system,” he said, “It emits greenhouse gases, but part of our program is to replant so you can sequester the carbon, whereas you cannot replant a fossil-fuel seed.” By “sequestering,” Lee was referring to the process by which plants take in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and produce and emit oxygen.

Noting solar energy proponents who are critics of the project, Lee said, “Solar is only available when the sun shines or if you have a battery. The batteries are only for four hours a day, though, so it’s what we call intermittent power.”

Although Lee has expressed hope the power plant will be online by year’s end, it still faces ongoing legal and administrative challenges.

On May 10, a five-judge panel of the state Supreme Court unanimously overturned the Public Utilities Commission’s 2017 approval of an amended power purchase agreement between HELCO and Hu Honua after environmental organization Life of the Land appealed PUC’s approval.

According to the 66-page opinion written by Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald, the court ruled “the PUC erred by failing to explicitly consider the reduction of (greenhouse gas emissions) in approving the amended power purchase agreement, as required by statute … .”

The ruling sends the power purchase agreement back to the PUC for a contested case hearing. There was a Sept. 17 deadline for filing preliminary briefs by all parties and participants.

In addition, a civil lawsuit by Claudia Rohr, a Keaukaha bed-and-breakfast owner, remains active in 3rd Circuit Environmental Court.

Defendants include Hu Honua, DOH, Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the county’s Planning and Public Works departments and Windward Planning Commission.

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In a June 6 hearing, Judge Greg Nakamura denied motions by the defendants to dismiss Rohr’s lawsuit, which challenges several permits issued to the project. Documents continue to be filed in the case, but no further hearings have been held.

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

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