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Kahuku residents question safety of wind farm after another fire

Another fire at a warehouse that holds batteries for the 30-megawatt wind farm in Kahuku has some residents questioning whether they should be concerned for their safety.

Kent Fonoimoana of the Kahuku Community Association believes the large plume of smoke originating from the fire could threaten the areas ecosystem.

“My concerns are for the downwind areas,” Fonoimoana told KITV4. “All of this fallout has been added to our water shed.”

The fire inside the 7,000-square-foot warehouse began at 4:45 Wednesday morning, and as of late Thursday afternoon, continued to smolder.

Honolulu Fire Department spokesman Capt. Terry Seelig said First Wind, which owns and operates the wind farm, agreed to let the building burn after firefighters expressed concern about the stability of the warehouse, as well as toxic chemicals coming from the lead batteries.

“It probably included the casing of some of the batteries, which now releases the content, and these are lead cell batteries, so it’s an acid base,” said Seelig.

Fortunately, the direction of the wind at the height of the fire blew most of the smoke away from Kahuku. Robert Nozawa of Nozawa Farm said he and other members of his family would have left the area if the wind changed directions.

“I would definitely evacuate just out of personal concern,” said Nozawa, who sells sweet corn on the shoulder of Kamehameha Highway.

Seelig said residents who live near the wind farm have the right to ask questions, but it’s highly speculative whether evacuations would have been ordered if smoke from the fire blew toward Kahuku.

“That’s a science based question that really is difficult to answer without having a lot more time to process it, in terms of using tools to model the plume,” said Seelig.

Firefighters attacked the blaze by using a dry chemical agent, but only after Hawaiian Electric Co., delivered 1,000 pounds of the retardant. The firefighting efforts were put on hold when the chemical agent ran out.

Fonoimoana questions why First Wind did not have a supply of the fire retardant on site. He said company officials were considering the installation of a fire suppression system within the warehouse after two similar fires last year.

“I don’t want to name names, (but) First Wind representatives said that they will install those measures,” said Fonoimoana.

Both the Kahuku Community Association and the Koolauloa Neighborhood Board voted to support the First Wind project before construction began. The wind farm began operations in March of 2011.

Phone calls and emails to First Wind by KITV4 went unanswered Thursday.
HECO spokesman Darren Pai said it’s not known how long the wind farm will remain offline. He said in the first six months of operation, the wind farm prevented the use of 76,000 barrels of crude oil.

The Kahuku wind farm is capable of powering 7,700 homes on Oahu through the use of 12 2.5 MW turbines. The battery system developed by Xtreme Power Inc. of Kyle, Texas, is needed to evenly distribute power along HECO’s transmission lines.