Lava Covers Potentially Explosive Well at Israeli Company's Plant in Hawaii

Although officials assure that wells are 'safe' and 'secure,' lava has never engulfed a geothermal plant anywhere in the world and the potential threat is untested

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Residents watch as lava from a Kilauea volcano fissure advances on a roadway in Leilani Estates, on Hawaii's Big Island in Pahoa on May 25, 2018.
Residents watch as lava from a Kilauea volcano fissure advances on a roadway in Leilani Estates, on Hawaii's Big Island in Pahoa on May 25, 2018.Credit: MARIO TAMA/AFP

HONOLULU – Lava from the Hawaii's erupting Kilauea volcano volcano covered at least one well Sunday at a geothermal power plant on the island owned and operated by Israeli company Ormat Technologiers, according to a Hawaii County Civil Defense report.

The well was successfully plugged in anticipation of the lava flow on Big Island, and a second well nearly 100 feet (30.5 meters) away has also been secured, according to the report. The plugs protect against the release of gas that could turn toxic when mixed with lava.

The lava breached the property overnight.

David Mace, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the flow started about 590 feet away from the nearest well. But he said safety precautions went into effect before the breach. “I think it’s safe to say authorities have been concerned about the flow of lava onto the plant property since the eruption started,” he said.

Puna Geothermal was shut down shortly after Kilauea began spewing lava on May 3. But Ormat remained optimistic that the lava would not reach the plant, which is responsible for 4.5 percent of Ormat’s total geothermal power production worldwide.

High Alert: Hawaii Volcano Lava Now Entering Ocean From Third Flow and Triggering More FearsCredit: U.S. Military News

Ormat owns a 63.25 percent interest in Puna itself, and the minority interest is held by the Canadian investment fund Northleaf.

Ormat shares were down 2.2 percent at 182.50 shekels ($51) in late trading on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange on Monday. The company had issued no statement on the latest developments at Puna, which harnesses heat and steam from the Earth’s core to spin turbines to generate power.

A flammable gas called pentane is used as part of the process, though earlier this month officials removed 189,000 liters (nearly 50,000 gallons) of the gas from the plant to reduce the chance of explosions. They also capped the 11 wells at the property to try to prevent a breach.

Before the lava reached the well, plant spokesman Mike Kaleikini told the news agency Hawaii News Now there was no indication of the release of the poisonous gas hydrogen sulfide – the greatest fear should lava hit the wells.

“As long as conditions are safe, we will have personnel on site,” Kaleikini said. “Primary concern is sulfur dioxide from the eruption and lava coming on site. We monitor for hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide on a continuous basis.”

Steve Brantley of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said the flow seemed to have halted Sunday morning, before it picked back up and covered the well at the plant – which lies on the southeast flank of the volcano, nestled between residential neighborhoods.

Lava-filled fissures have torn apart chunks of the southeastern side of Big Island over the past three weeks as Kilauea has become more active.