Judge approves agreement on HELCO plant expansion

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Project opponents say they are satisfied with the settlement

By Peter Serafin

Special to the Star-Bulletin

HILO >> Circuit Judge Ronald Ibarra has accepted a mediated agreement that allows the Hawaii Electric Light Co. to significantly expand its Keahole power plant near Kona Airport.

The settlement ends a decade-long conflict involving HELCO, the Keahole Defense Coalition, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, the Department of Land & Natural Resources, two private citizens and rival power company Waimana Enterprises Inc.

With this agreement, HELCO will "increase operational capacity (on the 14.9-acre site) within six or eight months," said company President Warren Lee.

When phase two is completed around the end of next year, the facility will have the capacity to provide power to an additional 48,500 West Hawaii homes.

"Since Kona is the fastest-growing area of the island, it made sense to increase output there," said Lee.

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.

HELCO also will commit $2.2 million for legal fees and other costs of past lawsuits, as well as for opponents' costs for future Public Utilities Commission hearings on rate hikes.

The company will also contribute $500,000 and technical expertise to develop a solar-heating program on Hawaiian homelands. And it will provide some of its county water allocation to homeland residences.

Longtime opponents of the expansion say they are satisfied with the settlement.

"Under this agreement, HELCO will meet the coalition's early demands," said Keahole Defense Coalition President Keichi Ikeda. "This means less noise pollution, less air pollution, less visual blight and less conflicts with the community."

In his decision yesterday, Ibarra lauded the good-faith effort of all parties during the five months of negotiations under the court-appointed mediator, Honolulu attorney Gerald Sekiya.

Phase one of the expansion is 85 percent complete. HELCO must still obtain zoning, conservation and environmental permits from various state and county agencies to complete both phases of the project, but the plaintiffs no longer will oppose the project as long as "HELCO meets environmental conditions that exceed the requirement of existing laws," according to a joint statement.

Waimana Enterprises Inc., which had announced plans to build a power plant in nearby Kawaihae, disputed HELCO's right to expand its Keahole facility.

Ibarra's order held that Waimana's interest in HELCO's plans was purely economic, and it therefore had no legal standing to object to this settlement.

Waimana officials were not available for comment on yesterday's ruling.