HELCO deal 'win-win'

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

All parties praise a settlement allowing the Big Isle utility to expand power generation at Keahole while addressing pollution and noise concerns

By Peter Serafin

Special to the Star-Bulletin

HILO >> The Hawaii Electric Light Co. can proceed with an expansion of its Keahole power plant under an agreement that ends a contentious, decade-long battle over the utility's plan. If the settlement is approved by Circuit Judge Ronald Ibarra, the power company plans to "increase operational capacity in six or eight months," said HELCO President Warren Lee. He noted that the company is not seeking to expand its 14.9¬acre Keahole site near Kona Airport, but wants permission to operate additional generators on the site.

The utility has sought -Acoustical consulting permission for a 56¬megawatt oil- and steam-powered plant expansion. The first phase is 85 percent complete, according to Lee, and the company hopes that the second phase can be complete by the end of next year.

Michael Matsukawa -¬attorney for the Keahole Defense Coalition, Peggy Ratliff and Mahi Cooper -¬called the settlement a "win¬win situation for everyone." The agreement calls for HELCO to install $21 million in noise- and pollution-reducing equipment and facilities, improve landscaping and aesthetics at the site and cooperate with neighbors and community groups.

Big Island PowerHELCO will also commit $2.2 million for legal fees and other costs of past lawsuits, as well as for opponents' costs for future Public Utility Commission hearings on rate hikes. In addition, the company will contribute $500,000 and technical expertise to develop a solar heating program on Hawaiian homelands. And instead of using county water for all of its operational needs, HELCO will use brackish ground water and transfer a portion of its county water allocation to the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

A joint statement from the parties described the agreement as "a forward-looking model for land use conflict resolution." "HELCO has agreed to meet coalition demands," said coalition President Keichi Ikeda. "We have shown that a community can successfully achieve the desired goals through citizen participation." The dispute dates to 1992, when HELCO first sought permission to expand its Keahole plant on 15 acres of conservation land. More than a dozen lawsuits have been filed since, alleging increased pollution and noise from the plant, along with visual blight. The company proceeded with work on the first phase, even though the suits have kept the project tied up in court.

HELCO said the expansion is necessary to maintain enough power and avoid infrequent rolling blackouts. This settlement, mediated by Honolulu attorney Gerald Sekiya, is the result of negotiations between the plaintiffs -- Cooper, Ratliff and the coalition -- and HELCO, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, the Department of Land & Natural Resources and the Department of Health.

HELCO must still obtain a number of zoning, conservation and environmental permits from various state and county agencies to complete the project. However, the plaintiffs will no longer oppose the development as long as "HELCO meets environmental conditions that exceed the requirement of existing laws," according to the joint statement. Big Island Mayor Harry Kim called the agreement "evidence of what a committed community can achieve for the overall good of the people of the Big Island."