Hawaii geothermal plant plugs wells as lava flows nearby

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Kilauea, the volcano on Hawaii's Big Island that's been erupting since May 3, is visible from space - and astronauts have been helping with the emergency response.

Native Hawaiians have long expressed frustration with the plant since it came online in 1989; they say it is built on sacred land.

Lava from an active fissure nearby had flowed onto the property early this week, posing the risk of toxic gases being released in the event the molten rock encroached into any of three pressurized deep-underground wells. The plant has capacity to produce 38 megawatts of electricity, providing roughly one-quarter of the Big Island's daily energy demand.

Hawaii's Gemini Observatory has released a striking time lapse sequence of the volcanic eruption at the Kilauea Volcano.

Kilauea rumbled back to life on May 3 as it began extruding lava and sulfur dioxide emissions through a series of fissures, marking the latest phase of an eruption cycle that has continued almost nonstop for 35 years. The plant harnesses heat and steam from the earth's core to spin turbines to generate power. Earlier this month, officials removed 50,000 gallons (190,000 liters) of the gas from the plant to reduce the chance of explosions. The lava approached the southernmost point of the station's boundaries and a disused building belonging to the University of Hawaii caught fire, it stated.

However, stream of red-hot lava destroyed a former geothermal project site adjacent to the PGV grounds, civil defense said.

Hawaii volcano eruption
AFP Getty Images Hawaii volcano eruption Laze can be potentially deadly if inhaled

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. It is responsible for 4.5% of Ormat's total geothermal power production worldwide.

Actually, Kilauea began erupting not on May 3 but in 1983.

"I think the biggest worry for us is based on the geologic history of this volcano - is that the current fissure activity could actually become a bit larger", said geologist Steve Brantley from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Scientists say the methane can seep through cracks several feet away from the lava. Laze, a word combination of lava and haze, contains hydrochloric acid steam along with volcanic glass particles.

It's just the latest hazard from a weeks-old eruption that has so far generated earthquakes and featured gushing molten rock, giant ash plumes and sulfur dioxide.

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