Text quoted from Houston Chronicle Archives, Jim Morris,11/09/1997


A prominent Texas researcher came 4,000 miles to document the residents’ symptoms in hopes of advancing knowledge about an insidious chemical, he caused an upheaval worthy of Hawaii’s headstrong goddess.

“I’ve never encountered anything quite like it,” said Dr. Marvin Legator, director of the Division of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

Legator, 71, was accustomed to conflict, having often sided with community groups that had accused powerful corporations of environmental misdeeds and government agencies of ineptitude.

Even by his standards, however, the official reception in Hawaii was chilly. It seemed that the only ones who wanted him here were the people of Leilani Estates, a rustic subdivision just south of the geothermal plant.

Most government and business leaders were less than convivial; PGV was a pet project, blessed by luminaries such as U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, and Legator was in a position to spoil it. At one point, there was talk of undersea cables that would carry 500 megawatts of electricity to tourist-saturated Oahu and Maui. Inouye even sought federal funds for the project, but it went nowhere.

By the time Legator entered the picture in 1996, some of the Leilani Estates residents already had organized into a group called Puna Malama Pono (rough translation: Protect the Goodness of Puna).

They had complained for years about lethargy, dizziness, insomnia, vomiting, diarrhea – the very symptoms that are associated with chronic hydrogen sulfide exposures in the medical literature and that Legator himself had observed near a synthetic-rubber plant in the West Texas city of Odessa.

Legator is among a handful of researchers intrigued with the effects of minuscule – and purportedly safe – levels of hydrogen sulfide on the human body over a period of months or years.

“It’s so ubiquitous, and we’ve had so much misleading information out there about it,” he said. “If you survive, nothing’s going to happen to you – that’s the dominant theory held today.

“All the regulatory agencies still hold to that same crap. The whole house of cards collapses on them when you start talking about chronic, low-level exposures, because that’s where the problems are.”

For Legator, Hawaii represented an unusual investigative opportunity: Here was an isolated population exposed over a period of years to generally small but quantifiable amounts of hydrogen sulfide from a known source.

In a 1981 report, three scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California concluded that “atmospheric releases of hydrogen sulfide constitute the most significant public health issue of geothermal energy production,” and that carcinogenic and neurotoxic compounds such as benzene, arsenic, mercury and radon also could be released at levels of concern.

Two of Legator’s research associates went on a scouting expedition to the Puna District in March 1996, conducting interviews with 69 people. Legator made his first visit at the beginning of this year and announced his preliminary findings – symptoms consistent with hydrogen sulfide exposure – at a Jan. 9 news conference at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Legator thought he had made it clear that more work needed to be done. He realized that something was seriously amiss, however, when he read an article in the Jan. 12 edition of the Hawaii Tribune-Herald.

The headline was, “Official: Health Survey Bogus.” The story quoted Bruce Anderson, deputy director of the state Department of Health in Honolulu, as saying that the results of any survey Legator conducted would be inherently biased because the subjects were rabidly anti-geothermal and had had years to bone up on the effects of hydrogen sulfide. The attacks didn’t stop there. On March 26, a PGV official appealed to William Cunningham, chancellor of the University of Texas System in Austin.

“PGV is surprised and disappointed that the University of Texas would knowingly allow its fine name to be attached to a health survey of the type produced by Dr. Legator,” wrote Jack Dean, the venture’s vice president and general manager.

Dean did not respond to Chronicle interview requests. Legator said that he felt no pressure from either the university or the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences – which funds research centers at UTMB and 25 other universities – to discontinue his work in Hawaii.
Still, he was so put off by the experience that he asked the Collegium Ramazzini, an international association of public-health researchers, to consider forming a defense committee for scientists browbeaten by industry.

Legator and his associates have not finished their analysis of the complete Puna District survey, given to 97 people who live near PGV and 58 members of a control group in Hilo, 20 miles away.

Nonetheless, Legator said that many members of the “exposed” group appear to have been impaired by hydrogen sulfide. “The vast majority – almost 90 percent – are showing neurotoxic effects,” he said.

In an interview, Anderson said that Legator “essentially recruited individuals with known prejudices against geo-thermal power development in Hawaii. Obviously, if you ask people who are upset about a development activity if they feel they’ve been affected, they’re going to tell you they have.

“If there’s a health problem down there, we’re going to take action to address that concern,” Anderson said. “If it means shutting down (PGV), so be it. But if (Legator) is alarming people needlessly, that’s not a good situation either.”

The saga in the Puna District began in December 1975, when the first well was drilled for the state-run Hawaii Geothermal Project, an experimental, three-megawatt power plant near Leilani Estates that went on line in 1981.

Almost from the start, residents complained about the rotten-egg stench, a sure sign that hydrogen sulfide was present.

However, when the state Health Department compared the one-year prevalence of illness in Leilani Estates with that in Hawaiian Beach Estates, a subdivision farther from the plant, it found no compelling differences – although it said that more of the Leilani Estates residents seemed to suffer from colds.

The experimental plant was closed in December 1989. But geothermal was far from dead on the Big Island.