May 22, 2018 / 9:57 PM / 6 months ago

Lava flow torches warehouse at Hawaii geothermal plant

HONOLULU, May 22 (Reuters) - A new lava flow from Hawaii’s erupting Kilauea volcano edged towards a geothermal power plant on Tuesday after destroying a warehouse at the facility, after the volcano entered a more violent phase at the weekend.

Workers at the now closed Puna Geothermal Venture, which provided around 25 percent of electricity on Hawaii’s Big Island, scrambled to cap the last of three deep wells to reduce the risks of an uncontrolled release of toxic gases should they be inundated by lava.

The race at the site marked the latest challenge facing authorities during what geologists call an unprecedented, simultaneous eruption at Kilauea’s summit and from giant volcanic cracks or fissures 25 miles (40 km) down its eastern flank.

A lava flow from one of the fissures entered the 815-acre (330-hectare) geothermal plant complex on Monday night and destroyed a warehouse, County of Hawaii government spokeswoman Janet Snyder said.

Another fissure reactivated on Tuesday and sent lava flowing slowly in the direction of the plant, County of Hawaii Civil Defense said in a tweet.

Snyder said none of the wells were in imminent danger, as the flow was barely moving and still several hundred yards (meters) from the plant.

The latest explosive eruption at the Kilauea summit at around 1 a.m. (6 a.m. EST) sent a plume of ash over Hawaii’s Big Island, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory reported in a statement.

“Communities downwind should be prepared for ashfall as long as this activity continues,” the observatory said.

MORE VIOLENT PHASE

The geothermal plant has been closed since shortly after lava began erupting on May 3 through newly opened fissures in the ground running through neighborhoods and roads in an area near the community of Pahoa.

The state has pumped cold water into the wells and capped them with iron plugs.

The plant’s wells run 6,000 to 8,000 feet (1,830-2,438 meters) underground to tap into extremely hot water and steam used to run turbines and produce electricity.

About 3 miles (4.8 km) to the east of the plant on the coast, noxious clouds of acid fumes, steam and fine glass-like particles billowed into the sky as lava poured into the ocean from two flows.

Laze — a term combining the words “lava” and “haze” — is formed when erupting lava, which can reach 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,093 degrees Celsius), reacts with sea water. It is potentially deadly if inhaled and killed two people when a lava flow reached the coast in 2000.

Kilauea’s eruption, which has already produced nearly two dozen lava-spewing fissures, entered a more violent phase at the weekend, producing larger volumes of molten rock from fissures.

At least 47 homes and other structures have been destroyed in the Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens area of the Puna district, and a man was seriously injured on Saturday by flying lava.

Some 2,000 people have been ordered from their homes due to lava flows and toxic sulfur dioxide gas. Several hundred are staying at three Red Cross shelters in the area, including some staying in tents outside with their pets. (Reporting by Jolyn Rosa; Writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Sandra Maler)

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