County suspends home purchase program over lava concerns

AP News
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Posted: Jan 26, 2015 4:07 PM

HILO, Hawaii (AP) — Uncertainty over a lava flow in a mostly agricultural region of Hawaii's Big Island has prompted officials to put a hold on a program that allows a county agency to buy homes near a geothermal power plant.

Hawaii County's planning department has placed the moratorium on new purchases and auctions of purchased homes in the lower Puna area, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported (http://is.gd/YKyyTk). The program allows it to buy homes near the plant from people with health concerns.

The decision was finalized this month after the county bought five homes late last year, the first purchases since the program was flooded with applications in 2012 following renewed concerns about geothermal power.

Letters will be sent to the remaining applicants, said Joaquin Gamiao, planning administrative officer.

A new lava flow from Kilauea volcano emerged from a vent in June and reached the small town of Pahoa this fall. It has since crossed a rural road, burned a house and caused the evacuation of businesses at a shopping center. A branch of the lava is still threatening homes and the town's police and fire stations.

The Puna Geothermal Venture power plant and neighboring homes have not been directly impacted by the lava flow. But officials say the concern comes if the flow hampers access to the area and if the 38-megawatt plant loses transmission lines and shuts down.

If the plant ceases operation, there will be no funding of the geothermal royalties, which are used to buy the homes.

"There's so many things that can impact the whole program," Gamiao said. "We're going to take the time to look and make an intelligent guess about what's going to happen and how to proceed."

The Geothermal Royalty Fund had $2.7 million as of Jan. 8, with another $1 million in reserve. That would be enough funding to continue with purchases, but not enough for all remaining 30 homes.

The county may evaluate the program during this moratorium.

Julia Connor, a relocation applicant, said she has not heard the program will be delayed. "I don't think it's fair if that's the case," she said.

She applied in 2012 for relocation because of scratchy eyes and headaches, symptoms she thinks might be caused by long-term exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulfide.

Those are common complaints from people living near the plant, but no connection between the symptoms and the power plant have been established.

The county plans to start a three-year study to determine what, if any, health effects have occurred.

The relocation program started in 1996 to help residents who expressed a desire to leave the neighborhood.

Since them, the county has spent $1.5 million to buy 10 homes. It has received $216,100 by auctioning off four of those properties.

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Information from: Hawaii Tribune-Herald, http://www.hawaiitribune-herald.com/