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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Report favorable to Mauna Kea telescope plan

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writer

A newly released draft environmental document says the construction and operation of NASA's proposed Outrigger Telescopes at the W.M. Keck Observatory will have little adverse effect on the Mauna Kea mountaintop.


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All meetings will begin with an informal open house from 5:45 to 6:15 p.m., with public comments at 6:15 p.m. Written comments must be received by NASA no later than Sept. 30, or 45 days after publication in the Federal Register of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of notice of availability of the Draft EIS for the Outrigger Telescopes Project, whichever date is later.

Send comments to Dr. Carl B. Pilcher; Office of Space Science, Code SZ; NASA Headquarters; 300 E Street, SW; Washington, DC 20546-0001; e-mail to otpeis@nasa.gov or fax (202) 358-3096.

The draft environmental impact statement, released yesterday, describes a $50 million project that is unlikely to have any significant cultural or archaeological effects and might even improve the plight of the rare wekiu bug, which is found only on Mauna Kea.

But the leader of a group opposing the plan said yesterday that document is flawed by the use of old data and ignores the cumulative impacts of all of the projects atop Mauna Kea, which some Native Hawaiians consider sacred.

"The mountain is already substantially impacted," said Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou.

NASA wants to construct between four and six smaller telescopes next to the existing twin Keck telescopes in an array that would generate even sharper images and greater detail from the two most powerful optical telescopes in the world.

Each outrigger telescope would be enclosed by a 35-foot-high dome and supported by underground concrete instrument rooms. Construction would occur on the Pu'u Hau'oki cinder cone that was previously disturbed for construction of the Keck telescopes.

The visual impact of the new telescopes would be minimal, according to the document, because they would be dwarfed by the 121-foot-tall Keck domes.

The draft EIS includes a burial treatment plan that lays out procedures if any human remains are found, and the project will not restrict access of Native Hawaiians to the summit region.

As for the wekiu bug, the draft EIS offers two formal plans that support a proposal to restore habitat to compensate for the loss of a .019-acre area to construction. The restored habitat would be three times larger than the lost area, and an entomologist would visit monthly to monitor the insects, which live in the volcanic cinders and feed on dead bugs that are preserved in the snow or immobilized by cold.

Opponents have argued the development would affect the area's hydrology and water quality, but the draft EIS contends there will be no impact. In particular, it says, percolating wastewater from the observatory site would not travel to Lake Waiau or to the springs on the west side of Pohakuloa Gulch, countering claims that those water bodies could be threatened.

The draft EIS concedes a "substantial and adverse" cumulative effect of all of the telescopes on Mauna Kea's cultural resources. But the addition of the outrigger telescopes would have only a "small incremental impact."

Pisciotta said every new proposal is going to claim a small incremental impact. The problem, she said, is that the small impacts add up to substantial ones, as the document points out.

"At some point there needs to be a limit," she said. "There needs to be a carrying capacity."

Pisciotta, a former telescope technician, said her group would be severely critical of the document's hydrology section, in part because of the use of what she called outdated data.

"Cinder cone hydrology is complicated, and it's going to take more than 20-year-old data and a few minute samples to figure out what's going on," she said.

If the permit process goes as planned, construction would begin in 2005 and the new telescopes would start operating in 2007, the document said.

Reach Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.