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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, December 2, 2004

Critics sue after panel OKs NASA project

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — Critics of NASA's proposed "outrigger" telescopes are appealing a decision by the state land board to allow the $50 million project at the summit of Mauna Kea.

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources in October completed a contested-case hearing in connection with the project, voting to approve a state conditional use permit for construction of up to six smaller telescopes around the W.M. Keck Observatory. The observatory already houses the largest and most powerful optical telescopes in the world.

Opponents of the project filed a lawsuit in Hilo Circuit Court Tuesday, alleging the project would exceed the limit of 13 telescopes allowed on the mountain in the management plan approved by the land board. The summit already has 13 observatories and more major telescopes than any other peak.

The suit was filed on behalf of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, the Sierra Club's Hawai'i Chapter and a Native Hawaiian with genealogical ties to Mauna Kea.

The suit also asks the court to require the land board to approve a comprehensive management plan for Mauna Kea before considering future summit development.

Critics of the project have raised concerns about threats to endangered or rare plants and animals, disposal of toxic waste, and damage to the summit's "sacred ambience."

The 13,796-foot Mauna Kea is traditionally sacred to many Hawaiians as the meeting place of the sky god Wakea and the earth mother Papa, who eventually became the parents of the first ancestor of the Hawaiian people.

The outrigger telescopes would enhance images from Keck's twin telescopes and are part of NASA's Origins Program to study how stars and planetary systems form, and whether habitable planets exist around nearby stars.

Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, director of the University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy, said the lawsuit "did not come completely unexpected." He said he has been advised not to discuss the specifics of the case.

The institute applied for the state permit for the project, which is being financed by NASA.

"I believe the contested case was a very comprehensive investigation of the whole Keck outrigger permit application," he said.

NASA still needs to complete a federal environmental impact statement for the project. If that study is completed as planned, supporters of the project hope to begin construction next year and have the new telescopes operating in 2007.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.