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Does the Thirty Meter Telescope Pose Environmental Risks?


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As protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope continue, many critics say they’re worried that the $1.4 billion project will damage Mauna Kea’s environment.

Thirteen observatories have already been built on the top of the state’s tallest mountain, but the TMT will be by far the largest. Once completed, the observatory and its support building will span 1.4 acres.

The project would take up another 5 acres extending the road leading up to the mountain and adding a parking lot. It may also involve replacing two buildings at Hale Pohaku, a dormitory area about 9,200 feet up the mountain.

The Keck and Subaru telescopes on the Mauna Kea summit, viewed from the TMT construction site.

An environmental impact statement approved by the state in 2010 concludes that the entire project would have a “limited incremental” impact on the biological, visual, cultural, archaeological and geological resources of the mountain.

But the analysis also acknowledges that the cumulative impact of the telescopes on the mountain continues to be “substantial, significant, and adverse” because of how the telescopes have altered the mountain’s geology, squeezed animal habitats and affected Native Hawaiian cultural practices.

TMT officials say they have sought to minimize the project’s environmental effects by choosing a site where fewer animals might be affected, building a double-walled septic tank to handle all wastewater, and committing to using less hazardous chemicals in the observatory.

Still, according to the project’s environmental impact statement, a planned road extension could curtail the habitat of the Wekiu bug, an indigenous insect that until 2011 was a candidate for the endangered species list.

And while the analysis found little threat to the island’s water, opponents question whether more complex studies should be conducted, considering that the Mauna Kea aquifer below the peak supplies water to the east side of Hawaii Island.

TMT supporters believe enough has been done to ensure there’s no water pollution and argue that the socioeconomic and scientific benefits of the telescope supersede any lingering environmental concerns.

That’s not sufficient for longtime opponent Kealoha Pisciotta, a plaintiff in two cases challenging the telescope. Pisciotta, who leads the group Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, said there hasn’t been a comprehensive study of how the telescopes have affected the water supply.

Given the University of Hawaii’s history of poorly managing Mauna Kea’s environmental and cultural resources, Pisciotta believes the TMT would further desecrate the mountain she holds sacred.

She hasn’t always felt that way: Two decades ago, she worked as an assistant telescope specialist for the British government on Mauna Kea.

“I left because I couldn’t defend the university’s claim that they were taking care of the mountain,” she said.

Addressing Environmental Impact

TMT officials have sought to minimize the observatory’s potential environmental impact.

One of the most frequently voiced concerns is whether the telescope construction could pollute the aquifer. TMT spokeswoman Sandra Dawson maintains that there’s no way that anything that goes into the ground near the planned telescope can get into the aquifer.

“It can’t happen,” Dawson said. “It’s a physical thing, it’s not an opinion thing.”

The project’s EIS acknowledges that adding buildings could disrupt the flow of rainwater and that wastewater discharges create the potential for pollution. But the study concluded that the impact would be “less than significant” because the TMT is designed to lower that risk.

That double-walled septic tank will collect all the water, wastewater and chemicals used so they can be trucked off the mountain, Dawson said.

Bianca Isaki, a board member of the organization KAHEA: The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, doesn’t believe the EIS findings are based on sufficient studies.

“Did you look hard enough to see if there was impacts?” she asked skeptically. The observatories have a history of accidentally spilling sewage and chemicals including hydraulic fluid, propylene glycol and mercury.

Dawson said TMT officials are doing what they can to mitigate potential chemical spills, in part by avoiding the most dangerous chemicals. For instance, unlike other observatories in the past, the TMT will not use mercury to clean the telescopes.

Critics of the TMT question whether that’s enough, given the expected use of other hazardous chemicals. “UH/TMT’s promises to ‘comply with regulations’ for leaks or spills further begs the question of whether these substances should be permitted in a conservation district in the first place,” Pisciotta and other telescope opponents wrote in a brief contesting the project’s approval.

Another concern is the telescope’s potential impact on wildlife. Not many animals can live on the 13,796-foot peak of Mauna Kea. But in the past, telescope development has restricted the habitat of the Wekiu bug, contributing to its being listed as a candidate for an endangered species until 2011.

Dawson acknowledged that the road extension would curb the Wekiu bug’s habitat, but said the TMT is planning to fund a restoration project to mitigate that.

Still, project opponents including Pisciotta argue that any habitat destruction is unacceptable and that increasing the use of facilities at Hale Pohaku will also threaten other animal and plant species such as snails and silverswords.

Dawson said the TMT chose a lava field for the construction site in part because the bug doesn’t live there. The site also avoids reshaping volcanic cinder cones, as some previous observatories have done.

In addition, the TMT has strict rules regarding where trash can be disposed during construction, Dawson said.

“This will be the cleanest, neatest construction site you have ever seen,” she promised.

History of Poor Land Management

Debbie Ward is a natural resource scientist from Mountain View on the Big Island and one of the plaintiffs challenging whether the TMT can legally be built on conservation land.

Ward first visited Mauna Kea as a child in the early 1970s with her father, an astronomer. Returning 10 years later, she was stunned at how much trash littered the mountain.

A 1998 report by the Hawaii state auditor criticized the university for its poor land-use management of the mountain.

The audit found that the University of Hawaii had been haphazard in caring for Mauna Kea’s natural and cultural resources and prioritized development over the environment. For one thing, the university didn’t start gathering information about the Wekiu bug until after damage was done.

“The university focused primarily on the development of Mauna Kea and tied the benefits gained to its research program,” the audit said. “Controls were outlined in the management plans that were often late and weakly implemented. The university’s control over public access was weak and its efforts to protect natural resources were piecemeal.”

Follow-up audits in 2005 and 2014 concluded that management had improved since the university established the Office of Mauna Kea Management in 2000. The office finally surveyed the mountain’s historic sites and started studying invasive species, erosion and climate change. A rangers’ program helps ensure the mountain remains clean by picking up litter and educating tourists.

But it wasn’t until 2009 that the office published a Comprehensive Management Plan in response to a court order. The ruling resulted from a lawsuit filed by Ward and others challenging NASA’s proposed expansion of the Keck Observatory, which the agency ultimately decided not to fund.

Dawson used to work for the Keck Observatory expansion project, and said she moved to Hawaii after that because she knew that when it came to the TMT, she couldn’t successfully manage community relations from California.

Thanks to the Comprehensive Management Plan, the TMT is operating under a new paradigm of land use management that’s much more respectful toward Hawaiian culture and the environment, she said.

“We have dozens of charts showing every single step of the Comprehensive Management Plan: each thing that applies to us, how we will meet it,” she said.

But critics point out that the Comprehensive Management Plan is flawed because it lacks a limit on the number of observatories allowed on the mountain. The university also has a conflict by seeking to be both a developer and a land use manager, Pisciotta and other opponents allege in a contested case hearing filing.

On top of the other environmental impacts, Ward said the new telescope’s visual impact would further take away from the serene beauty of the mountain. She’s against adding any more structures on the mountain, and wants all the telescopes to be decommissioned by 2033, when the university’s lease is up.

“To me, it’s destructive to the geologic integrity of the summit,” Ward said of the TMT. “I feel like it’s my duty to do the best I can to protect the mountain from further development.”

The Future of Mauna Kea

The university is already in the process of putting together another environmental impact statement to extend its lease.

Stephanie Nagata, who leads the Office of Mauna Kea Management, said that the analysis is being drafted and the public can still submit comments.

Pisciotta, who is involved in a lawsuit challenging the approval of the TMT’s sublease, questions why the EIS on the lease extension wasn’t completed before the TMT project was approved. The new telescope is expected to be completed only about a decade before the current lease would be up, suggesting that TMT officials are banking on a renewal.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Keck and Subaru telescopes on the Mauna Kea summit, viewed from the TMT construction site.

Dawson said that the TMT has the right to proceed despite the unfinished EIS for the lease renewal and the legal appeals still pending.

“The TMT partners decided they did want to take that risk,” she said.

While the university may have improved its oversight of the mountain, Pisciotta believes the state land board should be managing Mauna Kea, not the university, because it is classified as state conservation land.

The concerns from Pisciotta and others in part reflect the repercussions of the university’s spotty record of managing the mountain throughout most of the last 47 years.

A 2007 report by the Keystone Group that analyzed the effects of choosing Mauna Kea as the site of the TMT said the project would be weighed down by “a sour history and heavy baggage.”

“Should TMT decide to pursue a Mauna Kea site, it will inherit the anger, fear, and great mistrust generated through previous telescope planning and siting failures and an accumulated disbelief that any additional projects, especially a physically imposing one like the TMT, can be done properly,” the report predicted.

Dawson maintains that the TMT is addressing all environmental and cultural concerns.

“We have done everything as carefully as we can with the smallest footprint as we can,” she said. “We are trying to do it right.”

Anita Hofschneider

Anita Hofschneider is a reporter for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at anita@civilbeat.com or follow her on Twitter at @ahofschneider.


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