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TMT wraps up EIS meetings across Big Island

Jim Hayes, of Parsons Brinckerhoff, presenting the Draft EIS at Pahoa Elementary, June 18, 2009.

Sandra Dawson, Task Leader for TMT Site Master Planning, right, talks to Toby Hazel, of Nanawale Estates about the staff positions for the project.

Sandra Dawson, Task Leader for TMT Site Master Planning, right, talks to Toby Hazel, of Nanawale Estates about the staff positions for the project June 18 in Hilo. (Hawaii247 photo by Baron Sekiya)

Karin Stanton/ Contributing Editor

If you’re looking for high-tech, you can’t get better than the world’s most advanced optical/infrared and biggest telescope on the world’s biggest mountain on the state’s biggest island.

That is what the non-profit Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corp. is proposing for a conservation district resource sub-zone on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea.

After a four-year study, two sites are under consideration for the $1.2 billion project – Mauna Kea and Cerro Armazones, a remote mountain in Chile.

The TMT board is slated to make a final decision July 20, even though the University of Hawaii’s environmental impact statement is not yet complete.

The EIS, published May 23, still is in the comment phase, with Gov. Linda Lingle, who has expressed her support, not expected to sign off until late this year.

The project may have found supporters in Lingle, Mayor Billy Kenoi and other elected officials, but not everyone favors another telescope on a mountain sacred considered by native Hawaiians.

TMT stakeholders completed a round of six public hearings Wednesday night, with a final hearing slated for Thursday on Oahu.

“We’ve been all over the island now and heard from dozens and dozens of people,” said Sandra Dawson, TMT environmental impact statement manager. “The comments about what we can improve on or address better are appreciated. We will address every single one (in the final EIS draft).”

Dawson, who moved to the Big Island to better learn the culture and local nuances, said TMT is striving to be sensitive to the island’s traditions and people.

“It would be simplistic to say businesses and unions are for it and the native Hawaiians are against it,” she said. “There are a variety of opinions, a real balance. The support and enthusiasm are encouraging, and we are listening to everyone.”

Dawson recognizes some residents are irked by previous projects that skirted cultural and environmental concerns.

“We knew things would have to be done differently than they have been done in the past,” she said. “We are proposing to integrate science, culture, education and sustainability.”

The TMT project is a partnership between California Institute of Technology, University of California, and ACURA, an organization of Canadian universities. The National Astronomical Observatory of Japan has joined as a collaborating institution.

The project and the EIS

The project includes five components: the physical observatory; an access road; a mid-level support facility with dorms and office space (a renovated Hale Pohaku); headquarters at the University of Hawaii Hilo park; and a satellite office in Waimea.

“It’s not just a big clunky white building up there,” Dawson said.

Jim Hayes is an environmental scientist with Parsons Brinckerhoff, the Honolulu firm consulting on the EIS.

He jumped straight to the issues of most concern – the cultural, biological, geological and visual impacts.

“For the site work, we went up not just once, but multiple times, depending on the seasons,” he said. “It’s pretty comprehensive. The library of information we could draw from is vast.”

Hayes said the project plans include extensive cultural and natural resource training programs, a habitat restoration plan, and a zero-discharge policy for waste water.

The telescope would be complete by 2018, about the time today’s middle school students will be looking for employment.

The plan also addresses the eventual decommissioning of the telescope.

Community benefits

The potential benefits are mostly related to education and employment opportunities and direct contributions to the local and state economies.

Specific benefits include:

* Hundreds of construction jobs created during the anticipated 8-year construction period;

* Additional jobs created through materials, goods, and services purchased and contracted locally for this work; and,

* An estimated 140 full-time employees during TMT’s operations. This would include about 46 people working each day and another four on the overnight shift. TMT proposes a ride-sharing program that would limit trips to the observatory to 12 per day.

The educational and community benefits outlined in the Draft EIS include:

* A comprehensive Workforce Pipeline Program to educate, train and mentor local students to help them succeed and to be qualified for TMT and other high tech jobs

* Funding for education opportunities on the Big Island,  observing time to UH astronomers, and additional locally chosen and managed educational programs. THis package would be part of the lease agreement.

The package translates to at least $1 million per year of the life the telescope set aside for local education initiatives. TMT will not dictate disbursement, but will relinquish control to a local board. 

“That’s the thing I am most excited about,” Dawson said. “These kids. We want to educate and train them for future TMT careers.” 

Selected Kona testimony – in chronological order

A handful of people spoke Wednesday night and hammered on well-worn topics.

Clifford Livermore, former Naval officer and Mauna Kea visitor station volunteer, Waimea: “This is by far the best site on the planet. Our island is very tourist sensitive. I’ve seen it go from a just a few tourists to 300,000 to 500,000 visitors. As we have gotten more telescopes and the biggest telescopes, we have seen more and more tourists. This is an incredibly positive way of seeing the universe and it is inspiring for our youth.”

Paul Koehler: “Talk is cheap. This is not a government project, but I have learned to be interested in the how and the verification of their statements. I have learned … there is an enforceable check-and-balance system in place. It will be a world class, responsible asset.”

Sandor Baranyi, Carpenters Union, Kona:  I see a lot of positives. It’ll provide jobs and make the Big Island a leader in astronomy. I think it is a win-win.”

Nelson Ho, Sierra Club member, Hilo: “There is no time when I go up to the summit that I can hear pure silence. You can hear the fans going day and night. When I hear they are looking at the north plain, I think ‘Oh no they are going into the suburbs.’ TMT has the potential to be a great telescope. What we are against is when and where it is going. There have been 30 years of mismanagement that has not been redressded and here we are talking about another telescope.”

Deborah Ward, Hilo: “There is so much in this EIS that is not even delved into before the Comprehesive Management Plan. This EIS is entirely premature. It is pitifully, poorly described in the EIS. A lot of paper has been produced but not a lot of thinking  has gone into it.”

Marni Herkes, Kona: “The University of Hawaii did not manage it well, but that does not mean they cannot learn from their mistakes. We don’t have a lot of academics on this island. Our public schools don’t have that. Let’s do this right so we can have some educational, academic options for our students”

Ask the students …

Alexa Holshue, 19, Kohala High School graduate and Northern Arizona University student of public relations: “It’s a good idea. I don’t have anything against it. It’s what you get out of it, really. It’s a great thing for the University of Hawaii Hilo and those students and there is all the science of it too.”

Alana Heuer-Salazar, 20, Kealakehe High School graduate and UH Manoa student studying speech pathology: “I get what people are angry about. The idea of progress. But we are going to go through that. It’s the how we utilize the tools we have – from the ancient Hawaiians to now. There can be a balance between the tradition and progress. We can do it.”

Submit a comment


Call: (866) 284-1716

Mail: TMT Observatory Project, Office of the Chancellor, University of Hawaii at Hilo, 200 W. Kawili Street, Hilo, HI 96720-4091. 

Comments must be submitted or postmarked by July 7 to be included in the final EIS. Comments submitted after the deadline may still be addressed, but not the EIS.

Comments for the TMT board may be directed to Sandra Dawson at

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