Land Board is next step for 30-meter telescope

By Nancy Cook Lauer
West Hawaii Today
Land Board is next step for 30-meter telescope

HILO — The long-running controversy over the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea enters its next chapter Feb. 12, when the Board of Land and Natural Resources meets in Hilo to hear arguments following a contested case hearing over a conservation district use permit.

The Land Board convenes at 11 a.m. in council chambers at the county building. Only the parties in the contested case are allowed to testify. But groups opposing the telescope plan a 9:30 a.m. rally in front of the county building with drums and signs.

The arguments follow a hearing officer’s report in November supporting the University of Hawaii’s request to build the giant observatory. The 126-page decision recommends the approval of the $1.3 billion TMT, which would be one of the world’s most powerful optical/infrared telescopes, if not the world’s most powerful, when it takes in its first light around the turn of the decade.

Although Aoki’s report is not the final word, the contested case hearing was by far the biggest hurdle to date for the TMT, which had to survive multiple rounds of objections over the approval of the Mauna Kea Comprehensive Management Plan, the approval of the TMT’s environmental impact statement and UH’s own approval process.

Proponents cite the outstanding educational and high-technology employment opportunities the telescope will bring to Hawaii Island. Mauna Kea, with its clear skies, existing telescopes providing a synergy for research and location in the Pacific is a natural for TMT, which is a partnership formed by research universities and governments from United States, China, Japan, India and Canada, they say.

Sandra Dawson, the TMT’s on-site manager, pointed out that Aoki’s report found that TMT satisfied the eight criteria for granting the conservation district use permit by being consistent with state laws governing the districts, not causing substantial adverse impact to existing natural resources, being compatible with the surrounding area, preserving the existing physical and environmental aspects, not subdividing or increasing the intensity of the land use and not being materially detrimental to the public health, safety and welfare.

The petitioners are Deborah Ward, KAHEA, Paul Neves, Clarence Kukauakahi Ching, Mauna Kea Anaina Hou and the family of E. Kalani Flores and B. Pua Case. Parties will be granted 30 minutes each to summarize their cases.

Opponents are concerned about the environmental damage another large telescope would cause, as well as the aesthetic damage to the mountain view enjoyed by island residents and visitors. Many Native Hawaiians oppose another telescope on what some call their “sacred mountain” on cultural and religious grounds.

“I’m one of the petitioners who has a recreational interest,” said Ward, an organic farmer and member of the executive committee of the Hawaii chapter of the Sierra Club. “I’m concerned about the environmental consequences, the visual aesthetics, the impact on the native flora and fauna. Others object on more of a cultural basis.”

But hearing officer Paul Aoki found little evidence from opponents’ testimony.

“The reliable, substantial and credible evidence demonstrates that the TMT project will not result in any substantial adverse impact on the cultural practices of the community or state or Native Hawaiian traditional or customary practices on Mauna Kea,” Aoki said in his report. “There are currently 11 observatories on Mauna Kea … Considering all existing observatories together, at least one observatory is visible from roughly 43 percent of the island’s land area.”

Aoki attached a long list of conditions to the project, including requirements that TMT establish, among other things, an annual mandatory cultural and natural resources training, an invasive species control program, a habitat restoration study, a “zero waste management” policy, ride-sharing, the use of energy-saving devices and that the observatory corporation pay a “substantial” amount for sublease rent.

Dawson said the TMT group has pledged $1 million a year for education on Hawaii Island once construction begins. She said the project would create about 300 construction jobs during the eight-year construction period, and then add 120-140 full-time employees after that. In addition, she said, TMT has already started creating summer internships for college students and supports high-school math,, science and robotics programs.

The Land Board won’t make a decision right away, but will take the arguments under advisement and will make a closed-door decision sometime in the future. The losing side has the option of appealing to 3rd Circuit Court, and opponents have in the past indicated they would do that if the ruling were in favor of the University of Hawaii.

The BLNR had already granted approval of the TMT’s conservation district use permit at its meeting in Honolulu on Feb. 25, 2011, but at that same meeting it had moved to order a contested case hearing and ordered that no construction begin on the site until the conclusion of that process.

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