Draft EA predicts no impact for teaching telescope

  • An artist's rendering of a teaching telescope proposed for a site at Halepohaku. (University of Hawaii)

A draft environmental assessment for a planned University of Hawaii teaching telescope at Halepohaku predicts no major impact to the environment.

The assessment, which was published Friday in the state’s Environmental Notice, outlines UH’s plan to erect a telescope at the midlevel facility on Maunakea within an 18-foot-diameter dome on a platform connected to an existing building.

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The telescope would be primarily used by UH astronomy students, who have not had access to a usable educational telescope since 2010.

At that time, UH updated its summit observatory, Hoku Ke‘a, by replacing its 24-inch telescope with a 36-inch one. However, that new telescope was found to be faulty and was never used.

A second replacement telescope was secured in 2016, but by that point the university had resolved to decommission Hoku Ke‘a as one of the five summit astronomy facilities to be removed in order for the Thirty Meter Telescope to be built. Since then, the new telescope has remained in storage.

According to the draft assessment, Halepohaku is the most preferred of 16 site alternatives both on and off the island considered by the university. Some of those alternative sites included Kilohana Girl Scout Camp, Gilbert Kahele Recreation Park (both of which were rejected in part due to light pollution from traffic), Haleakala on Maui (rejected because of costly maintenance), or sites in Arizona, Oregon or the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California (all rejected because of their inconvenience for hands-on learning).

Because of the proposed site’s proximity to Halepohaku, an already developed facility on the mountain, the assessment found that the construction of the telescope would not pose any additional risk to the environment.

The assessment identifies only a handful of nearby sites associated with traditional cultural practices.

According to the assessment, UH sent letters to 68 entities from state agencies to community members between 2020 and 2021 asking them to weigh in on the area’s cultural legacy, but received only nine responses. Of those responses, three expressed opposition to any further development on the mountain, and two others either said they had no pertinent information to share or promised a future reply that never came.

Nonetheless, the assessment concluded that neither the construction nor the regular use of the telescope would impede cultural practices or sites.

As for local flora and fauna, the assessment determined that only minimal vegetation clearing will be necessary for the project, and that construction vehicles will be regularly cleaned to prevent the spread of invasive species.

The assessment went on to similarly identify no lasting impact to water quality, air quality, noise pollution, traffic, road quality, and more.

The document also includes a list of all the comments submitted to the university during a public outreach session for the project in 2020. Of those 355 comments, 212 were generally opposed to the project, and 139 were supportive.

With the draft assessment released, members of the public have until Oct. 24 to review the document and submit comments, which will be considered during the university’s preparation of a final environmental assessment.

The design phase of the project is expected to last until March 2023, after which a permitting process will begin. Following that, construction is scheduled to begin August 2024 and be completed by December of that year.

Meanwhile, the decommissioning of Hoku Ke‘a is scheduled to be completed next year.

The draft assessment can be viewed and comments can be submitted at uhhet.konveio.com. An open house at the UH-Hilo Science and Technology Building from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Oct. 5 will have further information about the project.

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

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