The 10 Questions?

A page asking 10 questions about Mauna Kea and the Thirty Meter Telescope is floating around social media with answers to those questions. Some of the questions are good, but the answers range from highly selective readings of the record to flat out wrong.

Saddle Water Cross Section
A hydrologic cross section of the Humu‘ula Saddle by the Humu‘ula Groundwater Research Project, University of Hawaii

I was going to ignore this as another piece of anti-TMT literature, but it has become too common and seems to be the source of some anti-TMT myths. As a result I decided to write an analysis of those answers here.

All of the supposed answers are highly slanted to the anti-TMT view. Most of the answers are simply incorrect, some are completely dishonest. There are some bits of valid argument, just enough to give the illusion of truth by a highly biased author.

Author’s note: While I admit to some bias myself, I can back up these alternate answers with some better data and references.

Question #1: Is the State of Hawaiʻi giving a repeat offender an opportunity to execute bigger violations on Mauna Kea? 

Answer #1: Once maybe, no longer true

The answer given to this uses the state audits as evidence of past failings. In the process it totally ignores the fact that those same audits credit the current management of Mauna Kea for dramatically improving the situation.

Even when looking at past failing those failings were the management of neglect, of not accomplishing management goals, and that is all they are, things that did not get done rather than things that were done wrong. When it comes to a mostly wild place not doing something is really not such a bad thing.

Management of the mauna dramatically changed when the Office of Mauna Kea Management was created and located in Hilo rather than on Oahu. For the past decade there is a very positive track record of accomplishments towards the objectives. These include creating reasonable management plans and on the ground improvements.

The claim that there is no accountability or oversight is flatly wrong. The mere existence of audits is proof of that. It is also true that OMKM has born the brunt of much criticism and obstruction, and some of the delays are due to outside forces.

I suggest you read the auditors reports yourself. Yes, there are failings listed, but what is also apparent is that the current management has truly made progress over the past decade.

Question #2:  Is the building permit the TMT project received out of the ordinary?

Answer #2: No

TMT followed all necessary permitting rules in gaining approval for the project. The claim it did not relies on a superficial understanding of state law. Simply claiming that development is not permitted in a conservation district is an appeal to ignorance in the law.

The answer given in 10 Questions dishonestly gives examples of other conservation zones like Waipiʻo, Kaʻena, and the Nā Pali Coast to give an impression that conservation zones are only the most pristine of places. This neglects to inform the reader that the places mentioned are Protected Subzones, not a Resource Conservation Subzone like the summit of Mauna Kea, and are subject to a higher level of protection.

Each type of zone has slightly different rules and differ in the level of protection. All sorts of facilities or structures are permitted within resource conservation zones; such as aquaculture facilities, quarries and mines, as well as single family homes and more.

Building a facility inside a conservation zone requires a great deal of additional review and the issuance of a conservation district use permit. Such is a routine process all across the state. The necessary rules for conservation districts are contained within administrative rules section §13-5-24 .

Question #3:  Do two “wrongs” make a “right”?

Answer #3: Bad question

In this case it is not the answer that is wrong, rather the question written in a totally biased manner. The real question should be is constructing the TMT following the intent of the law? While building another telescope may increase impact to the mauna, the law considers mitigation and other efforts as part of a package.

The removal and site restorations of five telescopes in exchange for one is the key part of that package. The overall effect of the project on the mauna will be positive, thus making TMT allowable.

Question #4: Do all Mauna Kea structures need to go through the same permitting process?

Answer #4: No

This is one where the answer given may be true, but the reasons and examples given are wrong. We start with a bad example: Comparing permitting procedures from decades ago to the current project, before the origin of much modern environmental law and practice is dishonest.

The answer given also talks about traditional structures, two hale and two ahu that were dismantled. It states that the two hale were not in the way. True, but this neglects to mention that one was very non-traditional and both were essentially abandoned and decaying in the rough weather found on the mauna, both were built without seeking any sort of permission from the agencies that control the land, DHHL or DLNR.

The ahu were very much built “in the way”, and the state decided, probably correctly, that these structures were built as a political provocation rather than religious structures. The builders built these expecting the state to dismantle them, they dared the state to take them down, the only surprise is that the ahu stood as long as they did.

Do these different structures need a permit from the state? Let us compare the structures in question, TMT versus an ahu or hale?

A large project such as TMT is required to go through a lengthy approval process with a wide range of steps, hearings and potential court cases taking many years necessary to gain approval. In TMT’s case the process took well in excess of a decade. There is no reason to expect an ahu should have to go through such a process.

At a minimum someone seeking to build an ahu should probably approach the Kahu Kū Mauna cultural advisory council under the Office of Mauna Kea Management to seek their permission. There is no reason why a proper religious practice conducted at an appropriate site should not gain such approval, perhaps with some agreement from other Native Hawaiian practitioners who use the mauna. It is likely that such permission would satisfy other state agencies. But we currently do not know, as it appears no one has ever tried this route.

Question #5: Are government officials attempting to erase Native Hawaiians’ rights to engage in cultural practices reserved by law?

Answer #5: No

Beyond the unusual situation of ongoing protests, there simply no effort to impinge on Native Hawaiian rights to come to the mauna and to practice. Current management plans and administrative rules make this very clear, Native Hawaiian rights are to be permitted.

Please refer to the Mauna Kea Comprehensive Management Plan, Public Access Plan, paying particular attention to section 2.7.4 .

Question #6: Are government officials preparing to treat as military targets people exercising their free speech rights or their rights to engage in traditional Hawaiian cultural and religious practices?

Answer #6: No

The answer given is in complete disregard to actual events on the mauna. Speculations on the use of military force and sonic weapons are simply scare tactics, with no evidence to date to support those threats. This is in some ways the most dishonest of the answers given in the 10 questions.

In the protests local police have acted with unusual restraint, even while arresting protesters. This has been the hallmark of the protests from both sides, Kapu Aloha on the side of the protesters and corresponding restraint on the part of law enforcement.

Question #7: Does the State of Hawaiʻi have clear title to Mauna Kea and legitimate rights to determine who can use it?

Answer #7: Yes

Of course this will be argued about for the next century or more. Certainly the question was raised time and again during the TMT contested case. All significant court decisions, from the most recent cases concerning TMT, to legal precedent up to the US Supreme Court agree, the State of Hawaii possesses the legal authority to lease the land.

There are good arguments on both sides to this question, further reading can be found in Who Owns the Crown Lands of Hawai’i? by Jon VanDyke, Jon University of Hawai`i Press, 2008. The fact remains that the land is currently in the custody of the State of Hawaii, to be utilized as state land for the benefit of Hawaiians. To this end the land can be leased with the lease revenues going to the mauna and OHA.

Question #8: Are government officials putting the water supply of Hawaiʻi Island residents at risk?

Answer #8: No

Contrary to the very popular myth, TMT is no risk to the water supplies and aquifers of the island.

In fifty years there has been no significant damage to the aquifer under the mauna from the existing telescopes. Of course opponents quickly point out a number of small spills that have occurred. They neglect to not that these have all been quite small, were usually contained inside a building, or were quickly cleaned up.

The other fact that many protesters would like to refute, is that there is no aquifer at high elevation in the mauna. Data and reports from the Humu‘ula Groundwater Research Project at the UofH has often been circulated to refute that. This includes the chart below, which does at first glance look like a cross section of the mauna indicating water.

Saddle Hydrologic Cross Section, Humu‘ula Groundwater Research Project , University of Hawaii

Check the elevation on the left side, the chart goes up to 2000 meters, the mauna is twice that high, about 4000 meters. This is a cross section along Saddle Road, not the mauna, 6000 feet below the summit.

Professional hydrologist testimony at the contested case concludes there is no aquifer high in the mauna. This is borne out by any number of dry wells drilled around Pohakuloa in an attempt to secure a reliable water source for the facilities there.

Question #9: Is Mauna Kea the only place where the TMT can do its best work for astronomers?

Answer#9: Yes

The claim is made that the Canary Islands would be just as good a location for TMT, this is flatly wrong. The best sites in the Canary Islands simply do not measure up to Mauna Kea in term of median seeing, atmospheric transmission due to lower altitude, or number of high quality nights.

An only lightly technical explanation can be found here. See the TMT site testing final report for the technical data that shows this.

Question #10: Is Mauna Kea the best place to house the TMT?

Answer #10: Yes

The answer given draws on warnings given by state officials that the altitude of Mauna Kea can be dangerous and attempts to imply as such it is not the best place for TMT. The answer compares the warnings given to mauna visitors to those of the workers who routinely spend time at the summit. Quote: “No similar cautions were directed at construction workers or astronomers”.

Yes, the altitude is a concern and heath risks are present. What is ignored is that those who work on the mauna have extensive experience with the altitude, who’s bodies adapt to the altitude given time, have medical emergency training and equipment like medical oxygen available, as well as good emergency procedures in place. This preparation allows the risks of altitude sickness be reduced to an minimal level.

Altitude is a risk that can be dealt with. Indeed in the Andes and Tibet there cities with tens of thousands of residents at higher elevations than the summit of Mauna Kea. It is those who do not routinely travel to altitude than must take the most care.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

4 thoughts on “The 10 Questions?”

  1. Dear Andrew,

    Your site has the most accurate information and balanced presentation of all the many and varied sources I’ve researched since being made aware of the current impasse. It is my sincerest hope that more people will read and benefit from your work here. I wish you luck and hope for an imminent return to the summit for you and your co-workers. Hang in there.

    Thank you, D.

  2. The reference you provide for question #9 directly contradicts your statement:
    “Site testing was concluded by the selection of two remaining sites for further consideration, Armazones and Mauna Kea 13N. It showed that all five candidates are excellent sites for an extremely large astronomical observatory and that none of the sites stands out as the obvious and only logical choice based on its combined properties.”

    So you might want to change #9’s answer to “No” (assuming that you are being honest).

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