Debate over Hū Honua Spills Over

Construction of bioenergy facility remains publicly contested issue

Copy Editor Rosannah Gosser
Infographics courtesy of Hū Honua Bioenergy LLC and Mālama Hāmākua

Infograph

On Friday, Nov. 9, an explosion from one of the injection wells located near the construction site of the Hū Honua Bioenergy facility was witnessed by some of the welders on duty. According to Medeiros-Garcia, who serves as the president of the Pepe`eko Shoreline Fishing Committee, workers were conducting a test on the well and filling it with a kind of hazardous chemical, but the injection backfired and spilled out into the surrounding area, including off of the coastline.

After hearing about the incident, Medeiros-Garcia called the U.S. Coast Guard who directed him to file a report with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hotline. “I’ve been working so hard to preserve this shoreline for the fishermen and fisherwomen of my community who depend on these resources to put food on their table,” says Medeiro-Garcia. “If these guys are going to dump those chemicals in our waters, soon the whole east side of our island is going to be sick. It’s very concerning to me.”

Infograph

Hū Honua Bioenergy LLC is proposed to be “the missing piece of the island’s renewable energy solution.” Currently under construction in Pepe`eko and planned to be finished by Dec. 31, 2018, the energy facility will convert local biomass through a 30-megawatt plant to provide power for the Big Island’s energy grid. However, the construction of the plant is being challenged by local residents and activists. Opponents cite environmental contamination, increased traffic congestion in the area, and a lack of economic compensation for the local community as reasons, among others, against the construction of the plant.

Five days after the alleged chemical spill at Hū Honua Bioenergy, the State of Hawai`i Department of Health held a public information meeting and public hearing at the University of Hawai`i at Hilo’s `Imiloa Astronomy Center to allow community members to voice concerns about the construction of the facility. The meeting began with a presentation of the company’s pending permits, which include a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System application and draft permit, an application for an Underground Injection Control Permit, and a solid waste permit application for the recycling of ash, as cited by Big Island Video News.

The Department of Health’s presentation served to explain the process by which biomass fuel will be burned and converted into energy for the power grid. State officials went through each pending permit under discussion, and then project officials described details of how the facility will be operated. “DISCHARGED WATER IS SAFE,” read one presentation slide. “Hū Honua will comply with all environmental rules and requirements.”

The ensuing question-and-answer session saw a number of heated disputes between audience members. According to Pablo Beimler, chair of the North Hawai`i Action Committee, more than 100 people showed up at the meeting to speak out against the plant, including young children, teenagers, native Hawaiians, and steelworkers from the construction site.

“Emotions across the spectrum were spilled. The planet does not have time for projects like this with only a decade left to avoid utter climate catastrophe,” Beimler stated in an email sent to NHAN Committee members regarding the turnout of the event. “What I and many others in the room saw from the Hū Honua leadership were blatant lies, withholding of information, and dodging of critical questions.”

The crowd at `Imiloa contained several Hū Honua employees sporting green T-shirts with the company logo. When asked by a young student at Laupāhoehoe Community Public Charter School about whether or not Hū Honua employees were being paid to attend the meeting, President Warren Lee replied: “Yes, I am being paid to attend this meeting. This is part of our duty as far as being responsible to hearing what the community has to say and to reinforce that we will be operating within compliance of the permits when issued.”

As the Hū Honua Bioenergy facility nears completion, concerned residents are calling for an immediate investigation into the possible threats from the plant, including inadvertent spills such as the one Jaerick Madeiros-Garcias reported. Koohan Paik-Mander, of the environmental organization Mālama Hāmākua, states her contentions to the North Hawai`i Action Committee.

“Why was such activity allowed to take place before the issuance of any permits for either stormwater runoff, or to operate the injection wells, were issued?” says Paik-Mander. “Why has Hū Honua been allowed to get this far along in construction without having been required to conduct either an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement? Why have there been absolutely no studies conducted on the hydrology, geology or marine biology of this project that is proposing operations of literally ground-shaking magnitude beginning in a matter of days?”