Concerns About Geothermal- a Summary

Concerns about geothermal:

 from Beth McCormick

1) Putting the state’s energy source in a Lava Zone 1 is a recipe for disaster. “The possibility of an eruption in the geothermal resource or state-wide cable path within any 50-year period is between 60 and 90 percent.” [15] The Chain of Craters Road, which has been repeatedly covered by lava, and Royal Gardens Subdivision, where hundreds of homes have been lost to lava flows, are examples of Volcanic Hazard Zone 1.  The effect of an eruption could be severe, if the geothermal well or the undersea cable were buried by lava. The power generated by the geothermal facility would be lost—possibly for months, or even years.  Honolulu could be crippled, if these plans go through and they become dependent on geothermal. [15,18]

2) Economics.  Costs for the undersea cable to take that energy to Oahu are expected to exceed $10 billion (not counting drilling or building the plants themselves.)  That amount of money could put a solar hot water system on every roof in the state.  Hot water takes 39% of the typical household water use, so that would be a sizable reduction in energy use without using geothermal.  Under normal circumstances the geothermal investment would make no sense, but HELCO is a monopoly with a profit legislated by the government. Their financial incentive is the opposite of a normal business, which seeks to do things efficiently.  For HELCO, the more money they spend, the more money they get, since consumers are forced to pay the bill.  This boondoggle will increase the cost of living in Hawaii. [16]  Whether you own land, rent, or just visit Hawaii, you’ll be paying for this foolhardy expense. 


3Toxic emissions.  A mixture of nasty chemicals are released, and the small existing PGV well has produced emissions that exceeded a lethal dose for humans.  There have been 18 civil defense emergencies because of this one small well, and the well blowout in 1991 necessitated evacuating people from their homes.  The industry standard is a buffer zone with a 10 mile radius around a geothermal well.  “There are about 3,900 residential lots within a one-mile radius of the [small existing PGV] plant.” [20] Now they want twenty new geothermal wells here? This will completely change the character of the area from rural to industrial, threatening thousands of properties. 


4) Possibility of a “wild well.”  Since this is an area of constant tremors, it is possible for the well casing to rupture in an earthquake, causing an unrestricted flow of emissions or lava.  The geology here is different from other places where geothermal has been utilized.  Drilling at the small PGV well hit magma several years ago,[3] which came partway up the well shaft, and it’s very easy to imagine the possibility of starting an eruption that would not stop.  This is “by far the shallowest and hottest encounter of rock in a commercial operation.”[14] In 1977 an eruption was triggered in Iceland, when “magma erupted out the top of a producing geothermal well… in Krafla, Iceland.” [31]

Geothermal drilling has created a ‘wild well’ in California, in the Geysers Wild Horse area, “which emits about 306,000 lb./yr. of hydrogen sulfide (8.2% of the Geyser’s total). Efforts to stop these emissions have proven unsuccessful. Uncontrolled blowouts have the potential to vent up to 55,000 lb./hr. of geothermal steam and its pollutants into the surrounding environment.  Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is one of the more notorious toxins resultant from geothermal operations. It and lesser amounts of other sulfuric forms have been broadly disseminated as aerosols across areas surrounding geothermal development, especially along lines of prevailing wind patterns. H2S becomes sulfur dioxide (SO2) through oxidation. Both forms are hazardous to plant and animal life.”[1]


5)  Health effects “Workers at various geothermal facilities have experienced severe health impairing consequences from geothermal emissions exposure. Abnormally high occupational incidences of heart attacks, respiratory ailments, major liver damage, bodily disfigurement, lung scarring, pulmonary disease, high blood pressure, and damage to various internal organs have been reported. Workers have experienced bloody noses, chronic coughs, and other respiratory problems, headaches, stomach ailments, eye irritations, sluggishness, dizziness, vomiting, and a persistent skin rash they’ve named the ‘creeping Geysers crud.’ Doctors, including Dr. Philip Rasonri of Healdsburg, Ca, have concluded the symptoms workers have experienced indicate short-term chemical poisoning… The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal-OSHA), deposits of arsenic and vanadium dust were found after a malfunction in the steam cleaning process. The arsenic tests showed concentrations of 430 ppm – over two times the state’s safety standard. Vanadium, for which test results showed concentrations of 4,200 ppm, had no set safety standard, though it is a known toxin. While cleaning up a chemical spill resulting from the malfunction, twenty-four workers developed nosebleeds, nausea, and other illness symptoms.”[1]


6) Geothermal wells can cause earthquakes. “Discussion needs to be open about how exploitation of Earth’s internal heat can produce earthquakes.” [26] “Studies conducted by scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that geothermal power production induces seismicity. One of the possible means is that re-injection of the spent fluids, which is generally done at a deeper level than the original tapping well, lubricates the different fault line plates as well as altering the pressure upon them, causing them to “slip.” Another theory is that tapping the geothermal reservoirs depletes the pressure built up underground causing the plates to shift. Perhaps both of these factors work synergistically to cause minor quakes of 3.5 to 4.0 on the Richter scale. The Geysers area has experienced quakes of these magnitudes that have been associated with geothermal production. Geothermal production areas in Mammoth Lakes, California have also experienced “swarms” of quakes. Studies are ongoing attempting to further understand the correlation between commercial geothermal energy production and tectonic activity. One indicator has been notable land subsidence in the areas above geothermal reservoirs.” [1,12]


7) Geothermal can poison the groundwater, hence, the ocean.  “Possible stream, ground water, and aquifer contamination are additional environmental problems resulting from geothermal production. Toxic contaminant harms can occur through mishaps in production processes, as well inherent potential due to the complexity of geologic features and production requirements. Reinjection is one danger area wherein potential exists for fluids to enter an underground aquifer. Another is that of well pipeline rupture or other production fluid leakage. Fluids could escape and enter area streams and ground water, poisoning aquatic fauna and area plants. To counter this, the plant at Mammoth Lakes has spill containment basins, dikes, gates and shut off valves. However one fault of all these systems remains the potential for a major quake, which is especially high in these tectonically active areas, occurring sometime with in the projected 30 years use-time of the plant. Speculation remains despite industry assurances to the contrary, that ‘fail safe’ spill prevention systems remain as fragile as glass built upon a herd of sleeping buffalo. The large quantity of fluid flowing through the pipes (at Mammoth it is 300,000 gallons per hour) coupled with the possibility of the structural integrity of the facilities, spill containment ponds, dikes, and gates being compromised by the force of a quake – where these are no longer able to fulfill to their intended function; the potential for ecological disaster is relatively high. Generally the industry operates under the assumption that plant personnel will be able to respond to leaks within minutes. In an

emergency situation this may be very likely prove implausible. If gates are so damaged they cannot shut, and/or dikes are breached, geothermal fluids with all their toxins would flow unabated into surrounding area waterways, soils, and aquifers.”[1]


8)  Geothermal generates toxic waste solids.  “Yet another probability of ground water contamination exists: geothermal sludge. Geothermal sludge is composed of geothermal fluids, oils, and drilling muds; containing sulfur compounds as well as arsenic, other toxins, and heavy metals. Sludge is stored in sumps on the site, which could potentially fail contaminating surrounding streams and ecosystems. Plans to solidify sump contents, becoming part of the soil or subsoil ignore the long-term effects of the release of geothermal sludge’s toxic components through erosion and precipitation.”[1]


9) Shady Land Deal.  “In 1990, plans to construct a major geothermal plant in a Hawaiian rainforest resulted in considerable environmental opposition. The proposed area, near the Puna volcano, has a geothermal fluid H2S content six times that of the Geysers, at 1,300 ppm concentration. The area is one of extreme geological instability. Yet the project was being pushed through by big industry with government help. The unstable nature of the volcanically active area is a cause of significant concern. The area first being considered for geothermal production was inundated by new lava flows following test drilling. The lava covered 25,000 acres destroying former rainforest and burying the original proposed geothermal site. Many of the Hawaiians feel that the volcanic lava flows were triggered by the drilling of geothermal wells. The government response was to “trade” 27,000 acres of public rainforest trust lands to the geothermal development company in exchange for the lava covered devastated lands. The area traded is the ‘last original rainforest within the U.S.’ It was to be held in public trust to protect the native Hawaiian plants and fauna as well for public use. However the public is now forbidden entrance.” [1]


10) Lava tube land weakens well casings, potentially causing leaks.  “Some of the initial Puna test wells had to be suspended when workers tapped into volcanic lava tubes and attempts to plug geothermal leaks through the passages were unsuccessful. Being able to regulate dispersal of reinjected geothermal effluent as planned may prove implausible in these areas. The ‘highly fractured’ nature of subsurface formations also carries the potential for contamination of ground waters aquifers. Well bores are equipped with casings cemented to the subsurface formations designed to prevent this. However fractures within the formations put stress upon the cemented castings and can result in their failure. By 1990, three… wells had already experienced leakage from casing failures. A casing leak at ground water level was found in one of these wells in addition to two other leaks at split and separated casings. This leakage was

occurring very early in this planned geothermal plants’ projected operating time of thirty years. The likelihood of more leaks due to stresses on cement bonds over time is significantly greater.” The development of geothermal energy production in such an unstable volcanically active geological area carries the potential for ground water contamination and severe impacts upon the health of the surrounding environment. 


11)  Venting is allowed that exceeds the fatal dose to humans.  “While H2S emissions are regulated, required to be no more than 0.03 ppm, provisions exist that weaken this requirement. First, while drilling, geothermal contractors are permitted to vent up to 500 ppm of H2S into the atmosphere. This is 5 to 10 times above the inhalation irritation threshold and over 1,666 times the level at which H2S causes damage to sensitive plants (0.30 ppm). The fatal exposure level for H2S is 700 ppm, however, concentrations above 500 ppm can result in respiratory paralysis leading to death. Only if emissions are found to be above 500 ppm, are contractors required to notify air pollution control districts, after which they have twenty-four hours to act before they need to either close the well or install air pollution abatement equipment. 

Yet another loophole is permissible sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions levels. H2S gas oxidizes in a 12 to 18 hour period becoming SO2 as it is exposed to air. The permissible limit for SO2 is up to 1000 ppm, yet over 400 ppm of SO2 can be fatal. The irritation threshold is only 3ppm, respiratory irritation occurs at 1 to 10 ppm and 0.3 ppm for 8 hours is toxic to plants.

This calls into question who these permissible levels are intended to protect? The surrounding environment, workers, community, and animals

– or the uninterrupted economic production interests of geothermal commercial ventures? Why are these permissible levels set 2 ½ times higher than the level fatal to human life? Why are they set over 3,333 times higher than the level toxic to surrounding plants?”[1]


12) Hydrogen Sulfide is much more dangerous than was previously known. . H2S is classed as a chemical asphyxiant, similar to carbon monoxide and cyanide gases. It inhibits cellular respiration and uptake of oxygen, causing biochemical suffocation.

“At high concentrations (500-1,000 parts per million [ppm]), hydrogen sulfide acts primarily as a systemic poison, causing unconsciousness and death by respiratory paralysis. At lower concentrations (50-500 ppm),it acts as a respiratory irritant, which can lead to pulmonary edema upon exposure to concentrations in excess of 250 ppm. Exposure to hydrogen sulfide concentrations of 20-50 ppm may cause eye irritation and conjunctivitis. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established an occupational standard of 10 ppm in the workplace.” [20, 23, 24] “EPA has determined that hydrogen sulfide can reasonably be anticipated to cause serious or irreversible chronic human health effects at relatively low doses and thus is considered to have moderately high to high chronic toxicity.” [5] Prolonged exposures at lower levels can lead to bronchitis, pneumonia, migraine headaches, pulmonary edema, and loss of motor coordination. [28] “The precautionary principle recommends that smelling this gas is a warning that should be heeded by people to evacuate quickly.” [29]  These gases are heavier than air, but rather than putting monitors at ground level, the air quality monitors surrounding the existing PGV plant were put 6-10 feet above the ground, which obviously led to a lower report of emissions.


13) We’re close enough to get the effects of the “fallout.” “Particles of these toxic chemicals are carried from the geothermal emission source, rising with the prevailing wind currents. Those particles, ranging between 5 and 15 microns, generally fall out within 1 to 5 miles. Between .5 to 5 microns they remain airborne for longer periods, allowing chemical reactions to occur changing the nature of the substance (H2S to SO2 to sulfuric acid). Smaller particles ranging from .1 to .5 microns or less remain airborne “indefinitely.” These particles can enter the body through the respiratory system. Those less than 1 to 2 microns can penetrate deep into the respiratory tract and are readily absorbed into the blood stream through lung tissue. Some of these substances, such as mercury, accumulate without being eliminated. Hydrogen sulfide emissions tend to be in the penetrating smaller-size particles.”[1]



14) It’s a myth that geothermal has been safe elsewhere.  This is a far more polluting kind of geothermal than the “clean steam” geothermal done in California, yet still, geothermal is not the safe energy source it is portrayed to be. 

“A $60 million project to extract renewable energy from the hot bedrock deep beneath Basel, Switzerland, was shut down after a government study determined that earthquakes generated by the project were likely to do millions of dollars in damage each year, the New York Times reported. The project was first suspended in 2006 after it generated earthquakes that caused about $9 million in damage to other structures.” [22] “The Times covered the abandonment of a similar project by AltaRock Energy, outside San Francisco, which was attempting to extract vast amounts of renewable energy from deep, hot bedrock.” [22]

“Adults exposed to low levels of a toxic gas released by natural and industrial sources may experience wheezing, coughing and asthma attacks that require medication, finds a three-year study in Iceland. This is one of the first studies to find a connection between hydrogen sulfide – best known for its rotten egg smell – and respiratory health effects.” [29]

“In 1990, Mt. Apo in the Philippines was another site for a geothermal plant being opposed by area residents. The plant was planned within a park regarded “as one of the richest botanical mountains in the region. It is also the last major habitat for the endangered Philippine eagle. The area known as the Bac-Man Project planned thirty or more geothermal wells. Stack source measurements for H2S emissions found 990 ppm; 290 ppm over the fatal threshold limit, and many times the 40 ppm for 5 hours damage to sensitive plants. Well sites are expected to significantly impact the area’s forest; disturbing natural habitat and adversely affecting the region’s fauna’s ability to survive. Another geothermal project, the “Southern Negros”, released spent drill

fluids, injuring fish and shrimp within the area’s river. Effluents containing arsenic are projected in quantities that pose a danger to aquatic fauna. Gayong River’s health as an ecosystem has declined rapidly since the drilling started in the early 1980’s. By 1990 it appeared to be “close to the point of biological death.” Long-term operation of planned geothermal plants is expected to result in the cumulative build up of heavy metals and other toxins in the area’s rivers and seacoast. The consequent absorption of geothermal toxins into the food chain would adversely affect the fishing-dependant coastal population, as well as the fish themselves. Area farmers are also expected to suffer from geothermal toxic emissions, many of which are harmful to plants. As in Hawaii as of 1990, local oppositions to these projects was considerable.”[1, 19]


15) Injecting the toxins back into the earth contaminates water.

“Over the past several decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the nation’s geology as an invisible dumping ground.  No company would be allowed to pour such dangerous chemicals into the rivers or onto the soil. But until recently, scientists and environmental officials have assumed that deep layers of rock beneath the earth would safely entomb the waste for millennia.

There are growing signs they were mistaken.

Records from disparate corners of the United States show that wells drilled to bury this waste deep beneath the ground have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation’s drinking water.

In 2010, contaminants from such a well bubbled up in a west Los Angeles dog park. Within the past three years, similar fountains of oil and gas drilling waste have appeared in Oklahoma and Louisiana. In South Florida, 20 of the nation’s most stringently regulated disposal wells failed in the early 1990s, releasing partly treated sewage into aquifers that may one day be needed to supply Miami’s drinking water.

There are more than 680,000 underground waste and injection wells nationwide, more than 150,000 of which shoot industrial fluids thousands of feet below the surface. Scientists and federal regulators acknowledge they do not know how many of the sites are leaking.”


16) Geothermal kills plants in surrounding areas. “Climatic induced change by steam emissions increased the air temperature, cloudiness and humidity of the area. This induced change has been shown to be responsible “for fungal disease and branch die off in black oaks” at the Geysers.”[1]



17)  It’s a myth that geothermal will lead to cheaper electric rates. The customers will have to pay for this bad investment.  “Hawai`i county not only has the highest utility rates in the nation, it has held that record for decades, in spite of 20% of our power coming from geothermal. HECO has already started to experience a decline (in the number of people on the grid) and has to be acutely aware that it could escalate. In the past few years the rate of solar installations within Hawai`i has doubled each year. The number of renewable energy developers who have made proposals to the utility for large-scale grid-connected renewable energy projects has gone up ten-fold. The increasing use of various energy efficiency systems is also driving down the demand for electricity. HECO, and its subsidiaries Maui Electric (MECO) and Hawaii Electric Light (HELCO), experienced peak energy use in 2004. Since then the demand for electricity has been dropping.

This mechanism states that the utility is entitled to a certain level of revenue, and as sales drop they can automatically increase rates to keep their revenue on target. The PUC has already approved this mechanism.”[6]


18) Better options exist.  Hawaii will be less energy-resilient with geothermal, since the state’s power supply could be crippled.  With ample sunshine, it makes sense for solar generation to be localized. 

19) The US is falling behind the rest of the world in solar energy technology.  “Germany’s power industry has always been a world leader, but since the country closed eight nuclear power plants after the Japanese disaster and announced they would be shutting down the remaining nine by 2022, pressure to find alternative energy has mounted. Other sources such as wind and biomass are expected to pick up the slack, but solar power has never been more important./  The U.S. put a 31% tariff on Chinese solar panels and states are cutting the solar incentive programs. If the U.S. and Hawaii were seriousabout getting off oil they would instead buy all the cheap solar and install it. Even if China was dumping panels the government should have simply bought them all, installed them and gotten off oil.[8]  The United States Department of Commerce imposed extreme tariffs on China-made solar panels and modules of between 31% and 250%, making them much less affordable for U.S. consumers. Commerce took the additional extraordinary step of making the tariffs

retroactive for 90 days to prevent U.S businesses and homeowners from getting a decent price on the basis that their local dealer/installer bought panels before the date of their decision. Solar in this country just got a lot more expensive and the 100,000 domestic solar industry jobs (mostly installing and servicing) created over the last five years are now at risk. Also, oil, coal and gas suddenly can remain price competitive with solar in the U.S. for far longer than market forces would otherwise dictate. Longer term, it could make the U.S. may the last dirty, expensive, fossil-fuels/geothermal based economic backwater economy in the developed world.” [11]


20)  There is no sane reason why Hawaii should lag the nation in solar installations. “Hawaii’s goal of energy independence is growing closer, with the state’s solar installations rising 45 percent in first quarter 2012 over the same period last year, as noted in a recent Star-Advertiser article. In only three months, Hawaii homeowners and businesses installed another 14.8 mega-watts of solar generating capacity.   But though blessed with sunlight, Hawaii lagged far behind the average 85 percent national increase. New Jersey, not known for its sun, added an astounding 174 MW of solar installations — nearly 12 times Hawaii’s increase.  Hawaii’s comparatively slow gain results from Hawaiian Electric Co. limiting solar to 15 percent per circuit, pleading that further increases will destabilize the grid. But this is a false, self-serving argument: On Kauai, not served by HECO, some circuits are at 100 percent solar penetration with no impact on the grid.”[13]

21)  Hawaii has enough air quality issues already. With an eruption that has been ongoing for decades, the last thing we need is to add a potentially lethal cocktail of chemicals released into the air.  Kona’s air quality will be enormously impacted by geothermal development in Puna… or on Hualalai volcano.  Because of the inversion layer in the atmosphere, poisonous emissions will stay in the air above Kona for extended periods of time.  “During operation of the geothermal wells, gases may be released to the atmosphere [including] carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and trace amounts of 222radon. The emission of hydrogen sulfide gas is considered to be the most important tpublic health problem related to the operation of these geothermal wells. Since hydrogen sulfide is heavier than air, it can accumulate in low-lying areas during temperature inversions or when prevailing trade winds are calm.” [20]

22) Sacrificing the sustainable for the unsustainable is the height of folly.  Puna is an area where many people grow their own food, catch their own water, and generate their own solar power.  This should become an example for the rest of the islands, rather than an industrial wasteland sacrificed to benefit the urban center of Honolulu.  While none of us is entirely independent, and we all are interrelated, such a promising example of self-sufficiency should not be destroyed.

23) Kona could be severely impacted by their geothermal wells, as well as by those in Puna.  Hualalai volcano is potentially dangerous because its lava is so fast flowing.  Lava was reported to flow from 5000 ft to the ocean in 2 hours, last time it erupted.  A geothermal disaster above Kona could be deadly.

24) Legislative foul play.  Since the consumers will be footing the bill for HELCO’s lousy investment, which stands to make the cost of living here even higher, we ought to have a say in the decision.  But Act 55 and the Public Land Development Corporation have created an “end run” at the state level to avoid local control, state taxes, and the normal planning and permitting process.  Instead, only one hearing is needed, held in Honolulu, with only 6 days notice.  PLDC, which has been dubbed “grand theft aina,” is a mechanism for State and Ceded lands to be developed by private corporations.  Not only is there a bailout clause so that the public bears the financial risk, but neighboring landowners can be forced to pay for costly improvements, or face losing their lands.  This is a truly bad piece of legislation that needs to be repealed. 

25The cable itself is an economic as well as environmental threat.  Massachusetts studied, and ultimately rejected undersea cables using the same technology as a “high-risk” installation, too expensive to construct, with too many severe environmental impacts and too difficult to maintain.” “The Governor’s and HECO’s proposed multi-billion-dollar interisland cable would substantially increase Hawaii electric rates and taxes. It would be constructed through the Hawaii Humpback Whale National Sanctuary, the world-famous Molokai Reef, and the Penguin Banks, one of the most significant marine environments in the Pacific. No environmental or economic analyses of this project have been done, and the Governor is attempting to exclude it from such studies and public review.” [17]



26)  The noise is horrendous.  Ask anyone who’s lived near the geothermal drilling, with the noise pounding them 24/7. 

1. From the Oregon Sierra Club  <>








































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