Mauna kea observatory

BLNR rules on Mauna Kea Telescope

The governing body for the Department of Land and Natural Resources approved the proposed sublease, despite ongoing contestation.

On June 27, the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) approved the proposed sub-lease for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea, pending the result of contested case petitions filed by four parties.

Kealoha Pisciotta, a petitioner, said the main issue was violation of section 106 of the National Historic Preservation act, which requires consultation with Native Hawaiians on the religious and historical significance of the site.

Land Board member Robert Pacheco stated that this was a federal duty. Pisciotta, however, submitted evidence of $18 million in federal funding that obligates TMT to initiate Section 106 consultations. The position of TMT, as she explained, was that this funding was for the access roadway and not the TMT structures.

Petitioner Kalani Flores also reminded the board of a mandate to protect ceded and public trust lands. He stated that beneficiaries from this deal were the Thirty Meter Telescope Corporation (TMT Corp) and the Univeristy of Hawai`i (UH), and not the public of Hawai`i. He and Pisciotta repeated that they were simply trying to get the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) to enforce its own rules and perform its own duties, which they said required a more thorough investigation rather than “rubber stamping it.”

Flores also called for the BLNR to conduct oversight rather than give TMT Corp carte-blanche over the telescope’s construction, operation and decommission. Comparing versions of the sublease, he highlighted that certain provisions of DLNR oversight were eliminated.

As explained by Pisciotta, the TMT also did not adhere to all BLNR conditions required to authorize a sublease. She cited a checklist of requirements, many of which she sees the TMT failing to meet. One example she provided was that a project must improve the land upon which it resides, a requirement that the 18-story and $1 billion development does not meet.

Another major issue was the rent to be paid for the sublease. UH hired its own appraiser, James Allstrom, to assess the land purely on “market value,” to which he admitted that Mauna Kea as a telescope had no market for multiple buyers, and that there was “no other use” for the land. He could not comment on the cultural, heritage, historical, biological or aesthetic values.

According to the appraisal, criticized for bias as conducted by a UH-hired individual, the rent per unit is higher than any property of which Allstrom is aware. Opponents called for a “fair” rent higher than the perfunctory $1 paid by other observatories.

Pisciotta’s father worked for the Japanese telescope already on Mauna Kea, which paid such a rent despite what she quoted as having a $3 million dollar annual budget.

She continued, stating that with universities such as Yale offering $12 million for just 10 nights of observation, TMT could generate significant funds. In addition, secondary technologies developed on the site could equate to lucrative patents. She asked the board and OHA to take notice of these monies generated on public lands by a “non-commercial” entity.

UH Professor Candace Fujikane used graphics to illustrate the TMT: 184 feet high with 20 feet of subterranean excavation. A red balloon was photographed once it ascended to the height of the TMT, illustrating the prospect of an 18-story telescope complex on top of Mauna Kea.

The telescope would obstruct views to the essential Pu`ukoholā Heiau and significant solar and astronomical practices. Fujikane recounted a statement uttered in reference to cultural practitioners: “they can just cover it [the TMT] with their hand” to put it out of sight and out of mind.

Some cultural practitioners see the site as one of Hawai`i’s most sacred; the piko (center) of the world; a site of creation for Kānaka Maoli and the residence of multiple deities. The presence of `iwi kūpuna is also widely acknowledged. Diane Ku`uleimomi asked the board if they would be having this discussion were TMT being built in Arlington National Cemetery or on a Catholic Cathedral.

The issue of construction also surfaced as opponents claimed construction had already begun: an illegal activity given that the sublease had not been approved. TMT stated that this was for the previously approved roadway, yet witnesses who recently visited the site reported bulldozers and other machinery on the TMT site with clear evidence of initiatial excavation.

The attorney general will determine the standing of the four contested cases, which may proceed to a quasi-judicial hearing stage.