HONOLULU — Hawaii state officials ordered a geothermal company to halt all drilling Friday after a well blowout spewed toxic gas and routed 75 people from their homes on the island of Hawaii.
Opponents of geothermal drilling near the nation's last remaining tropical rain forest claimed the accident shows Hawaii's volcanic resource may be unmanageable.
White sulfuric steam roared uncontrolled for more than 30 hours from the Puna Geothermal Venture well before the company managed to cap it at shortly after dawn Friday.
The accident took place in rural Pohoiki, about 10 miles from the Wao Keleo Puna rain forest, where drilling by another firm has triggered an international outcry from environmentalists.
"The experts gave us odds of 1,000 to 1 against a blowout," said Steve Philips, a farmer who lives a mile from the site and was jarred awake before midnight Wednesday by the explosion. "Now, I can't believe a thing."
The blowout sounded like a jet airplane taking off, he said, except that it did not let up for two nights and a day. The noise, which got as high as 90 decibels, and the rotten-egg stench of hydrogen sulfide prompted the evacuations, according to Harry Kim, Hawaii County civil defense administrator. One worker suffered a minor injury in the blowout.
Even before the accident, geothermal development was among Hawaii's most heated issues. Scores of protesters have been arrested as they tried to to stop it. Environmentalists say it endangers the last major tract of lowland tropical rain forest in the United States. Residents argue that it threatens their health and safety, and some native Hawaiians decry it as a violation of the volcano goddess, Pele.
Norman Clark, project manager at Puna Geothermal Venture, which is owned by Ormat Energy System of Sparks, Nev., said the drill rig hit an extremely hot, high-pressure steam zone at 3,475 feet, far sooner than expected. But the blowout was not serious, he said. "We can drill and control anything that's in Hawaii," he said.
Puna Geothermal Venture had planned to begin generating the first geothermal energy in Hawaii as early as next month at its 25-megawatt plant, but that date may now be pushed back. The state Department of Health and the county ordered the company to stop drilling while the incident is investigated.