State: Removal of two Maunakea telescopes won’t harm environment

  • Tribune-Herald file photo The Caltech Submillimeter Observatory is scheduled to be decommissioned.

The removal of two Maunakea telescopes will have no significant impacts on the environment, according to reports by the state Department of Health.

The DOH’s bimonthly Environmental Notice, published Wednesday, included environmental assessments for the decommissioning plans for the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory and the University of Hawaii’s Hoku Ke‘a Observatory.

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The two observatories are the first of five slated for removal from the mountain as required by the terms for the planned construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Both proposed actions will not threaten the fragile environments or any cultural resources, according to both assessments.

Both assessments call for a total restoration of their respective sites, with all observatory structures removed and all traces of them obliterated.

Because both assessments have a similar scope, they both have similar findings and recommendations as well.

While neither project is anticipated to have significant impacts on the environment, both projects are recommended to take similar precautions such as educating work crews about the cultural significance of the area, minimizing the number of vehicles on the summit at any given time, and immediately suspending operations, should any human remains or burial objects over 50 years old be discovered during construction.

With those findings, CSO Director Sunil Golwawa said the removal of the Submillimeter Observatory could begin by February of next year, if the state grants a Conservation District Use Permit in a timely fashion.

After the demolition of the facility, which Golwawa said should only take a few months, CSO will continue to monitor the site for the following three years to ensure the project has no lasting impacts on the area.

Later this month, Caltech will hold three public meetings to solicit public feedback about the project. Golwawa said he does not anticipate much public opposition, but encourages people to submit testimony.

“Caltech is proposing to do the preferred thing, which is completely restoring the site,” said Jim Hayes, president of Planning Solutions Inc., which was consultant for the CSO environmental assessment. “We don’t anticipate any foundational criticism.”

Golwawa said the 10.4-meter telescope within the CSO facility has not yet been moved, because it is too large to do so easily and is too expensive to remount elsewhere. Caltech is seeking funding to move the telescope to a site in Chile.

However, he added that the demolition of the building housing the telescope will not be delayed regardless of whether the funds to move the instrument to Chile have been obtained.

Deconstruction of Hoku Ke‘a is scheduled to begin by mid-2023, according to that project’s environmental assessment.

The telescope within Hoku Ke‘a was removed years ago after it was found to be faulty, and a replacement telescope remains in storage at UH-Hilo, unused.

The replacement telescope is intended to be mounted at a planned new educational telescope facility to be built at Halepohaku.

UH-Hilo’s Maunakea Management Board approved design plans for the facility at a Tuesday meeting, but Greg Chun, UH’s director of Maunakea Stewardship, said during the meeting that those plans are not final and the process of approving the new facility is still in its early stages.

Public comments regarding either assessment will be accepted until Oct. 8.

Comments regarding CSO can be submitted to the Department of Land and Natural Resources at rachel.e.beasley@hawaii.gov, and comments regarding Hoku Ke‘a can be submitted to jmscheffel@gmail.com.

CSO’s public meetings about the decommissioning will take place on Sept. 28 at 11:30 a.m.; Sept. 29 at 4:30 p.m.; and Sept. 30 at 6 p.m. A link to those meetings will become active on those days at https://tinyurl.com/wb94by8.

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The assessments can be read at https://tinyurl.com/x5b2xz32.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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