Crews struggle to protect Hawaii power plant from red-hot lava flow

LEILANI ESTATES, Hawaii -- There have been two new eruptions at the summit of Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island. There's also no end to the flow of red-hot lava, and now there's another new danger: a rogue lava flow that's pooling on the edge of a geothermal plant. If that lava breaches one of the plant's three pressurized wells, it could unleash hydrogen sulfide, a toxic and flammable gas.

Plant workers have quenched two of those wells, filling them with cold water and sealing them, but the final one has resisted treatment.

"We are actually monitoring and keeping personnel 24/7 round the clock," said Mike Kaleikini of Puna Geothermal Venture.

The lava now has crept within 200 yards of the nearest well.

Fissure 22 is the most volatile and dynamic fissure on the Big Island, by far. It has been spewing lava for the last couple of days. It is shooting to the sky, and the heat from it is enormous. The lava has pushed its way two and a half miles to the ocean where it spills into Pacific.

Several fissures reignited overnight. Six of them are now active. Two rivers of lava now flow into the Pacific Ocean. National Guard Maj. Jeff Hickman was born here and has never seen anything like it.

"People maybe haven't had a lava threat, but now they have, and now there's multiple issues," said Hickman.

Those issues include new lava that is hotter, faster-moving and more unpredictable, and it could last deep into the summer.

As new lava pushes toward the geothermal plant, state officials are readying evacuation plans. Another 2,000 people in the lower Puna District here may have to get out.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.