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Nine significant non-COVID stories that happened in 2020

In addition to the coronavirus pandemic that continues to dominate the news, there were other significant stories on Hawaii Island in 2020, including the following nine stories chosen by the Tribune-Herald staff.

Kilauea erupts

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Kilauea volcano, after more than two years of dormancy, erupted at its summit on Dec. 20 at about 9:30 p.m. Multiple fissures opened on the walls of Halema‘uma‘u crater, and lava cascaded into the crater’s water lake, boiling off the water and forming a new lava lake at the base of the crater. The northern fissure produced a lava fountain 165 feet high, and a magnitude-4.4 earthquake was recorded beneath Kilauea’s south flank at 10:36 p.m. Word of the eruption spread quickly via social media, with locals and visitors alike flocking to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to view the lava. As of Tuesday, the lava lake at the bottom of the crater was about 591 feet deep, and all volcanic activity remained confined to Halema‘uma‘u.

Lava recovery

Meanwhile, the county continues recovery efforts from the 2018 lower East Rift Zone eruption that claimed more than 700 homes and other structures in lower Puna, covered 13.7 square miles in lava and created 875 acres of new land along the Puna coastline. On Dec. 4, the long-awaited Kilauea Recovery and Resilience Plan — a strategic document that will help guide the county’s recovery from the 2018 eruption — was released. According to the county, the plan builds on recovery initiatives that are ongoing and identifies additional projects that fit within three core strategies: eruption recovery, disaster readiness and community resilience. The plan identifies priorities for each project, steps to take, work already in progress, potential funding sources and project leads and partners. Atop the list are road restoration, including Pohoiki Road, Highway 137 to Vacationland near Opihikao, Lighthouse Road, and a section of Leilani Avenue to allow access isolated properties.

Waste woes

Solid waste issues, long a concern on Hawaii Island, remained so in 2020. The Hilo sanitary landfill closed in June, having reached its capacity. Now all East Hawaii landfill waste is trucked from transfer stations to the West Hawaii landfill in Puuanahulu. The county in 2020 issued numerous day-closure notices for transfer stations because of personnel shortages caused by the pandemic, often on the day of closure. Public complaints multiplied as the county cut back in early April on services such as scrap metal disposal, HI-5 redemption, green waste, reuse and electronic waste disposal when the stay-at-home order went into effect. The county inked a $10.5 million contract with Hawaiian Earth Recycling in 2016 for a large composting facility in Keaau, but that contract remains on hold, hostage to the coronavirus pandemic under an “act of god” abeyance clause.

Power plants

Two controversial Big Island power plants have ongoing court cases — one fighting three Circuit Court lawsuits seeking updated environmental review, the other having filed suit in the state Supreme Court seeking to overturn a Public Utilities Commission ruling that could keep it from ever producing electricity. The three suits against Puna Geothermal Venture — which went back online in November with limited electricity production after having been partially destroyed by lava from Kilauea volcano in 2018 — claim the environmental impact statement on the project complete in 1987 is adequate and outdated. And Honua Ola, formerly known as Hu Honua, a nearly finished bioenergy plant in Pepeekeo, petitioned the state’s high court asking it to order the Public Utilities Commission to vacate a decision that, in effect, nullified an amended power-purchase agreement the plant had with Hawaiian Electric C0. That petition is still pending.

Shipping rate hike

Young Brothers increased its rates by 46% in September after the state’s Public Utilities Commission granted the interisland ocean cargo shipper’s request for an emergency rate increase. The company said the massive rate hike, expected to increase revenue by $27 million, won’t result in a profit. The commission noted in its ruling that “Young Brothers’ financial issues, including rising operating expenses and declining cargo volumes and revenues, began well before the current economic downturn.” In late June, the state House Finance Committee rejected a proposal to give the ocean cargo company $30 million in federal coronavirus relief funding to avoid a shutdown of its service. Young Brothers had requested $25 million in coronavirus aid to remain afloat. That was a about a week-and-a-half after Young Brothers reported 21 shipping containers fell into the ocean from one of its barges at it approached Hilo. The company said it was the first time in 20 years containers had fallen overboard from one of its barges.

Telescopes

The $2.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope project on Maunakea was put on hold by the pandemic — as have the demonstrations that brought thousands of project opponents to Maunakea Access Road to keep construction vehicles and materials off the mountain. The protesters, who call themselves “kia‘i” or protectors, say the mountain is sacred. Earlier in December, the county’s Board of Ethics ruled former Mayor Harry Kim violated the county code against unfair treatment when he allowed protesters to close Maunakea Access Road to some people but not others. The vote came less than 48 hours after Kim left office, putting him out of reach of any county penalties. Off-site, the building of components for the next-generation observatory, including the dome, continues. Also continuing are preparations to decommission five telescopes on Maunakea in exchange for the planned construction of TMT. The first is Hoku Ke‘a, the University of Hawaii’s small teaching telescope. The 36-inch telescope was removed in 2018, but the building that housed it remains on the summit. It is to be removed by the end 2021 at a price tag of $1.3 million, but it’s unclear if the pandemic will affect those plans.

2020 election

Hawaii County now has a new mayor and elected prosecutor. Mitch Roth, who was the county’s prosecutor for eight years, was elected mayor over community organizer Ikaika Marzo in a runoff race in November’s general election. Roth, who was inaugurated Dec. 7, succeeded Harry Kim, an octogenarian who served 12 years during two stints as the county’s chief executive. Kim was eliminated from contention in August after finishing third in a crowded primary race. Kelden Waltjen, a deputy prosecutor who, at 33, was the youngest of three candidates in the August primary race to succeed Roth as prosecutor, won the job outright by garnering more than 50% of the vote, making a general runoff race unnecessary.

Nobel winners

Two scientists with Big Island ties were awarded Nobel Prizes in October. Biochemist Jennifer Doudna, a 1981 graduate of Hilo High School and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and her research partner, Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French microbiologist, were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. The pair developed CRISPR-Cas9, a gene-editing tool that has revolutionized science by providing a way to alter DNA. A day earlier, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to Andrea Ghez, a University of California, Los Angeles, astronomer. Her two decades of observations proving the existence of a massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy were performed at W.M Keck Observatory on Maunakea.

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Volcano golf course

The Volcano Golf Course and Country Club, a picturesque private course on the Ka‘u side of Volcano village, was closed abruptly by its leaseholder in April, four years before its lease was set to expire. In May, landowners Kamehameha Schools sued the Kailua-Kona-based leaseholder, Hawaiian International Sporting Club, demanding it relinquish the course without “further modifications to the property.” The suit claimed Shigeyuki Tachibana, a principal of the leaseholder, had threatened in a letter to “flatten the golf course by bulldozer and return it to Kamehameha Schools,” and said “the land will become a vacant land full of rocks and will not be suitable to keep any animals including horses and cows.” The suit, which was later withdrawn, didn’t mention a fire that gutted the course’s clubhouse in Nov. 2019. Kamehameha Schools put out a request for lease bid proposals for the property in October.

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