Three lawsuits filed against PGV

  • Puna Geothermal Venture plant.

A trio of lawsuits have been filed in Hilo Circuit Court, requesting an environmental review be completed before Puna Geothermal Venture, which was partially destroyed by lava two years ago, is allowed to produce electricity.

Two were filed Oct. 21 by Hilo attorney Gary Zamber. The first was on behalf of the nonprofit environmental group Puna Pono Alliance, plus Luana Jones, Shana Ritsema and Jon Olson, nearby residents of the geothermal power plant.

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The Puna Pono Alliance complaint, which names the state Department of Health and PGV as appellees, described Jones and Ritsema as “individuals whose health, property, homes and enjoyment of live have been adversely affected by environmental impacts from Puna Geothermal venture.”

Puna Pono Alliance and others have for years fought PGV over emissions of toxic hydrogen sulfide gas, including a well blowout in 1991 that caused uncontrolled venting for 31 hours, and a smaller leak in 2014 during Tropical Storm Iselle.

The second lawsuit, filed on behalf of longtime environmentalist Martha “Cory” Harden and residents Annamarie Kon and Gene Lang Thomas, names the DOH and PGV as defendants and seeks a declaratory judgment finding DOH and PGV “in violation of laws regulating environmental matters and issue related temporary and preliminary injunctive relief.”

All three lawsuits refer to the environmental impact statement on the project completed in 1987 as inadequate and outdated.

DOH determined additional environmental review isn’t required for the renewal of an air-pollution control permit PGV needs to operate.

In a letter to PGV and opponents dated Sept. 4, then-state Health Director Bruce Anderson, who has since retired, wrote, “The DOH has taken a hard look at all the environmental factors raised in … demands for (environmental review), and it has concluded independently that a new or supplemental environmental review is not required to be conducted by the DOH for renewal … .”

In the Harden lawsuit, Zamber cited a section of state law stating that agencies “shall not, without careful examination and comparison, use past determinations and previous EISs to apply to the action at hand.”

“Substantive changes affecting the PGV project mean the EIS completed in 1987 is no longer valid and create a present legal and practical need for a supplemental and updated environmental review that must be accepted by DOH as a condition precedent to implementation of PGV’s activities pursuant to a DOH air pollution permit.”

Noting the “facility was damaged, shut down and isolated from public roads by the eruption (and) some infrastructure and equipment was destroyed by lava … supplemental environmental review is required to assure that existing environmental concerns are given appropriate consideration,” pursuant to the Hawaii Environmental Protection Act, according to the lawsuit.

The third lawsuit, filed Oct. 23 without an attorney by Sara Steiner, who lives on Pohoiki Road, names the same appellees. Steiner said in her complaint she didn’t sign on to the other lawsuit because she has “different issues that need to be addressed.”

In her complaint, Steiner accuses PGV of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a claim Mike Kaleikini, PGV’s senior director of Hawaii Affairs, denied in 2019.

She claimed in the suit that the injection of fluids into geothermal wells by the power plant during the 2018 eruption “caused massive explosions which ejected lava under the plant out through Fissure 17.”

Steiner cited a section of the Hawaii County Code prohibiting hydraulic fracturing and noted, “The County of Hawaii has a fracking ban, and PGV is in violation of it.”

Steiner is seeking an order that PGV “complete a thorough and comprehensive EIS which encompasses all of contemporary knowledge of geothermal induced seismicity and the damage it does” and a cease-and-desist order until the EIS is completed.

Kaleikini told the Tribune-Herald in an email he hopes the power plant will be able to go online sometime next week. He did not comment on the lawsuits.

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The Puna Pono Alliance suit has a hearing set for 8 a.m. March 18 before Hilo Circuit Judge Peter Kubota. No hearings have yet been set on the other filings.

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

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