Astronomers, Aloha Aina advocates respond to Governor's plan to decommission Mauna Kea telescopes
By Mileka Lincoln Hawaiʻi News Now Posted: May 28, 2015 5:55 PM HST Updated: May 28, 2015 6:05 PM HST
MAUNA KEA, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - There are 13 telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea -- 12 of which are currently working. By the time the Thirty Meter Telescope is operational, Governor David Ige says he wants at least three of those dismantled.
It's not a new concept -- but rather, part of a state decommission plan that was drafted by the Office of Mauna Kea Management and went through a process of community review before it was approved by the Department of Land and Natural Resources in 2010.
The University of Hawai'i leases land on Mauna Kea from DLNR for $1 a year and then sub-leases it to telescope operators for $1 a year.
That lease is set to expire in 2033, at which time all telescopes on the mountain will need to be decommissioned. Each telescope operator is responsible for the cost of removal.
Under UH's current agreement, the first telescope that will come down is Cal Tech's submilimeter telescope. Deconstruction is set for
2016 and the land beneath it needs to be returned to its natural state by 2018. However, officials say sites may be re-used.
"Anything that would place a current telescope on an existing site would have to be the exact same footprint and size. There are no new sites planned -- that was stated in the decommissioning plan and that was stated in our EIS -- no new sites after TMT, but there is the possibility that one of the current sites -- a new telescope could be built there. Though unlikely, that is a possibility at this point in time. It's a very fluid situation so we'll have to see what is determined," said UH spokesperson Dan Meisenzahl.
Astronomers say each telescope has a different specialty and dismantling them will impact their mission, but it has always been a part of the long-term plan.
"Decommissioning itself is a complicated process and we'll try to accelerate the timescale so that we fulfill our promise that only the best telescopes will occupy the spots on this precious mountain," said Guenther Hasinger, UH's Institute of Astronomy Director.
Aloha 'Aina advocates who stand in protection of Mauna Kea say it appears the Governor's plan to decommission telescopes is intended as
a consolation prize for giving TMT the right to proceed with construction, but they say it's not.
"They could still build a telescope like this but not on Mauna Kea and the reason they can't build it on Mauna Kea is because it's objectionable
to our people, to the land -- it's harmful to the mountain itself. It's a desecration of a sacred place," said Dr. Jon Osorio, a UH Hawaiian Studies professor.
Astronomers say the telescopes have unlocked secrets of our past and provide clues about where we're headed, but the power of current telescopes will be eclipsed by the clarity of TMT.
"We are finding lots of extra solar planets -- planets around other stars -- and the holy grail there is to find a habitable planet or even a planet with life," said Hasinger.
Hasinger says he understands opposition to the project, but believes the scientific and cultural communities can find a way to share the space.
"Personally I have to say the mountain is sacred for me as well, but in a very deep-spirited meaning and everyone has a different place in his mind
for this word sacredness, but I fully understand that the mountain is a very powerful entity and I think that astronomers have always respected that entity," said Hasinger.
Those who oppose TMT say the telescope industry has had it's own way on the mountain, regardless of the impact on cultural and natural resources, for too long.
"I think it's ironic that people who talk about wanting to gaze into the universe to understand its secrets don't see the mystery and wonder of a
place like Mauna Kea," said Osorio.
Osorio says a failure by DLNR to properly monitor what UH was doing has contributed to Mauna Kea being treated not as conservation land, but rather as an industrial site.
"Because the telescope industry basically was able to see Mauna Kea and to exploit Mauna Kea as though it was its own property, we are now at a place where there is a complete impasse. I'm not saying if this had been handled differently this thing would've been built without all this pilikia (problem) but I am saying that it is impossible now that this can be built without confrontation and that is the fault of the state of Hawai'i. It is not the fault of the protectors of the mountain. It is not the fault of the environmental lobbyists. It is not the fault of the people who have been voicing these objections and have been basically disregarded all of these years," said Osorio.