Lava Flow From Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano Threatens Geothermal Plant

U.S. Geological SurveyAP Images

Lava has been flowing from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano since May 3, and Saturday evening it crossed into the area of a geothermal power property. The Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV) plant was already shut down when the lava crept closer. This involved removing 60,000 gallons of flammable liquid and plugging wells that connect with steam and gas in the Earth’s core. Most of the plugs are metal and run up to 8,000 feet into the ground. One well had to be plugged with mud because it remained hot even after attempts to cool it with water. The plant provides about 25 percent of the power used on the Hawaiian island. Reuters reports that lava has flowed underground about 25 miles east and burst through a couple dozen fissures not far from the plant.

Earlier this week, Hawaii Emergency Management Administrator Thomas Travis said in a press conference that the wells are “essentially safe” but that a change in the lava’s pattern or flow change, that status could also change.

“The well field is as safe as we can get the well field. The probability of anything happening if lava enters the well field is very, very low. They should feel pretty comfortable that there should be no untoward events from Puna Geothermal, assuming the lava doesn’t change its pattern or flow.”

If lava takes over PGV, it will be the first time this has happened anywhere in the world with a geothermal plant so no one knows what would happen. Residents live in fear of explosions that would send hydrogen sulfide and other gases into the air.

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Fear of emissions in case of an explosion is not new to area residents. They have been complaining about emissions since the Israeli-owned plant opened in 1989, and several lawsuits have been filed that question it’s proximity to one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Ormat Technologies operate the plant. Last week, they said that there are no signs of surface damage to the plant but that it was too soon to assess well damage. Lava did, however, destroy the former Hawaii Geothermal Project site not far from the plant according to NBC News.

The worst-case scenario for the current situation would occur if lava enters the wells and releases toxic gases into the air. This would require evacuation of area residents. So far, lava has come within 300 to 600 feet of the plant twice.

Meteorologists expect wind direction to shift Monday and Tuesday which will carry ash and volcanic smog into more populated areas in the west and northwest.