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Meeting on Hoku Ke‘a decommissioning goes sideways

A public meeting Wednesday about the decommissioning of Hoku Ke‘a became a discussion about the relocation of the University of Hawaii’s teaching telescope elsewhere on Maunakea.

UH representatives held an online public meeting to discuss the planned removal of its teaching telescope from the summit of Maunakea. Work on the removal is estimated to begin in 2023.

The meeting, which had only about two dozen attendees, was also intended to discuss the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ draft environmental assessment of the project, which found on Sept. 8 that it will have no significant impact on the environment.

However, because UH is also planning on building a new teaching telescope at Halepohaku, the mid-level facility on Maunakea, public discussion at the meeting quickly moved away from technical details and turned toward the Halepohaku project instead.

“What is the reason that UH cannot go to the other observatories (on the summit) and that they need their own?” asked one attendee, while another asked why UH will not relocate the teaching telescope off of the mountain entirely, such as to the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.

Pierre Martin, director of the UH-Hilo Educational Observatory, said astronomy students require substantial hands-on time with a telescope — more than they could get at another summit observatory without significantly disrupting the work of astronomers.

“Having our own smaller facility will increase a lot the amount of training we can provide,” Martin said.

Greg Chun, UH’s executive director of Maunakea Stewardship, said the decision to relocate the teaching telescope was a long and hard one to make, but Halepohaku was determined to be the best of about a dozen options because of its altitude, accessibility and the fact that the area is not undisturbed.

Chun added that the project to construct the Halepohaku observatory will be subject to its own environmental assessment and permitting process independent of the Hoku Ke‘a decommissioning.

And even if the construction of the Halepohaku site fails to receive the necessary permits, the decommissioning of the summit site will continue as planned.

But several attendees noted that telescopes on Maunakea might have an expiration date.

The newest draft of UH’s Maunakea Master Plan, unveiled earlier this month, commits the university to maintaining only nine operating astronomy facilities on Maunakea by 2033, the same year that UH’s master lease for the Maunakea Science Reserve expires.

In the event that the UH master lease is not renewed, all telescopes on the mountain, including the planned teaching telescope at Halepohaku, would be decommissioned, Chun said.

Most of the more pointed questions about the two projects skirted about the edges of the elephant in the room: the planned construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, which requires the removal of five summit observatories, including Hoku Ke‘a.

“Why is the university catering to (TMT supporters) when they know the overwhelming amount of people showed themselves to protect the mauna in 2019?” one testifier asked. “You guys’ track record on the mauna is a disgrace. … Why don’t we think about giving the mauna 65 years of rest and seeing what happens?”

The public comment period on the draft environmental assessment for Hoku Ke‘a’s decommissioning ends Oct. 8. The assessment can be read at hokukea.konveio.com.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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