Hawaii’s Board of Land and Natural Resources heard final arguments on Friday about whether construction on a 14-story solar telescope atop Haleakala on Maui should be allowed to proceed.
The Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. is challenging a conservation district use permit that the board issued to the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Astronomy in December 2010.
Attorney David Kimo Frankel, on behalf of his client, Kilakila o Haleakala, reiterated arguments that the telescope would have major impacts on scenic views and Native Hawaiian cultural resources. Haleakala contains numerous burials and other sites considered sacred by Native Hawaiians.
He cited the university’s own environmental impact statement, as well as testimony from Haleakala National Park Service officials and others that said impacts would be significant.
The university’s EIS for the project says that the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope “would be seen as culturally insensitive and disturb traditional cultural practices,” and that it would cause “major, adverse, short- and long-term, direct impacts on the traditional cultural resources” that couldn’t be mitigated.
The university has stressed that it has a host of measures in place to safeguard environmental and cultural resources.
But Frankel called these a “smokescreen.”
“The evidence is overwhelming and they keep denying it,” said Frankel of the scenic and cultural impacts. “It is incredibly frustrating pursuing a case like this when they make these admissions over and over and over again, then just argue no, no, no they didn’t mean it. They can’t do that.”
The cutting-edge telescope is slated to be built on an 18-acre site owned by the university, called “Science City.” It includes about a half-dozen other observatories. The telescope will be the largest, and 50 feet higher than any other structure, according to Frankel.
Attorney Lisa Munger argued the case on behalf of the university. She noted that there would be no adverse impacts on plants or wildlife and that the university was taking aggressive steps to ensure that Native Hawaiians had access to culturally important sites.
She said that the scientific, educational and public benefits of the telescope were undisputed.
“The Advanced Technology Solar Telescope will be the world’s premiere ground-based facility for studying and observing the sun — the sun being the most important astronomical object for mankind,” she said. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the sun and study it in the way that a large grassroots group of solar astronomers envision. To see the details of the surface, to see the corona as we never have done before.”
The university’s arguments are bolstered by an independent hearing officer’s July recommendation that the university be allowed to keep the conservation district use permit.
A previous hearing officer, Steven Jacobson, who spent a year reviewing the case, made the same recommendation. However, he was fired in March when the board ruled that he had inappropriate discussions about the case — ostensibly, with Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s office and the University of Hawaii.
Jacobson had complained to the board that he had received pressure from Inouye’s office to rule in favor of the telescope, but said that it hadn’t influenced his final decision.
Inouye’s office didn’t respond directly to the allegations at the time, only saying that the senator supported the telescope, supported robust debate on the project and hoped it would move forward within a reasonable time frame.
The university is under pressure to move forward on the $300 million telescope, which is jointly overseen by the university and National Science Foundation. Further delays could jeopardize $146 million in federal stimulus funds awarded to the project, which must be used by September 2015.
The land board gave no indication of when it will make a decision in the case. It is not bound to comply with the recommendation of the hearing officer.
Even if board members approve the permit, the telescope faces three other legal challenges brought by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. Frankel told Civil Beat after the hearing that there would likely be more lawsuits to come.
In one case, Frankel sued the university after it refused to turn over emails and other correspondence between the fired hearing officer, Inouye’s staff and Gov. Neil Abercrombie. A court ruled earlier this month in Frankel’s favor, saying that the university must release the information in accordance with the state’s open records law.