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Board OKs $17.1M plan for future TMT decommissioning

June 5, 2014 - 1:54pm

The estimated cost of decommissioning what’s poised to be one of the world’s largest optical telescopes is $17.1 million.

That number was discussed, and debated, during Wednesday’s Mauna Kea Management Board meeting at the W.M. Keck Observatory Hualalai Learning Theater in Waimea. The board reviewed the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory LLC decommissioning funding plan, eventually voting in its favor.

A draft of the plan was emailed to Stephens Media Hawaii earlier this week. According to the document, partners with the international observatory will establish a sinking fund, which would fully fund the cost of decommissioning the proposed observatory before the end of its expected life.

Rider Levett Bucknall, a global property and construction practice services agency with an office in Waikoloa, provided the conceptual cost estimate.

Pending approval of a sublease for the project from the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, funding would start at $1 million per year. The fund will be maintained for the 50-year life of the proposed observatory and payments will be adjusted annually for inflation. The funding plan would be reviewed and updated no less than every 15 years.

The sinking fund approach allows the observatory to gradually prepay the cost of decommissioning and restoration, and will commence with the first year of the telescope’s operations. Representatives from the observatory say operations could begin in 2021.

The estimated amount includes the removal of all improvements made to the site, including the facilities, dome and all of the observatory’s internal components. In addition, all material foreign to the site would be removed under the proposed plan, and the site would be restored as closely as possible to what existed prior to construction.

The need for decommissioning funds for such projects stems from a decision in 2000, when the University of Hawaii adopted the Mauna Kea Science Reserve Master Plan. That plan establishes the management structure for the university’s stewardship of the areas it oversees on Mauna Kea.

According to the Office of Mauna Kea Management’s website, the university leases 11,288 acres on Mauna Kea from the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, 525 acres of which is designated as the Astronomy Precinct.

In 2009 and 2010, the university adopted and the land board approved the Mauna Kea Comprehensive Management Plan and its subplans, one of which outlines decommissioning and provides a framework for the eventual removal of observatories on the mountain and for site restoration. Decommissioning will occur upon termination or expiration of the proposed sublease.

While the Mauna Kea Management Board was in favor of the plan, some Big Island residents are still skeptical.

E. Kalani Flores, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and one of six petitioners who challenged the state’s due process in issuing a Conservation District Land Use Permit for construction of the telescope, said he needed clarification as to what “full restoration” means.

“At the end, you have a large 5-acre scar on the surface of that site, and how is that being proposed to be restored?” he asked.

Mauna Kea Management board member Hannah Kiahalani Springer suggested maybe the language be changed.

Sandra Dawson, the observatory’s spokeswoman, said the partnership took steps to ensure proper restoration of the area.

“They’ve taken photos of every inch of the area, so you know exactly what it looks like and when you’re done, you get it as close to that as possible,” she said.

Also present at the meeting was fellow petitioner and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner B. Pua Case. She gave an emotional speech about the day’s discussion.

“I can’t believe that we’re even thinking about what we will ‘un-destroy.’ What we should be doing is imaging what this immense construction of 18 stories will look like on the mauna,” she said.

Flores, Case and their fellow petitioners intend to appeal 3rd Circuit Court Judge Greg Nakamura’s ruling May 5 in favor of the project to the Hawaii Supreme Court.

The Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory will be built on the northern plateau of Mauna Kea, at an elevation of roughly 13,150 feet and 1.5 miles northwest of the eight existing optical and infrared observatories located near the summit.

The observatory will consist of the telescope, adaptive optics system and instruments all contained in a dome, support building and parking area. The facilities will all be clustered within an approximately 5-acre site. The primary component of the telescope is the 30-meter segmented primary mirror, with 492 individual mirror segments that will function as a single mirror.

The sublease for the international observatory project is up for final review by the state land board. Land board officials will either approve or deny the terms of the sublease for the $1.3 billion project on June 13. If approved, construction could start within the next few months.

The sublease falls under the university’s current master lease that allows telescopes on Mauna Kea through 2033 and 2041. The university is currently conducting an environmental impact statement before getting a new lease, which could take several years.

The statement of intent for the decommissioning plan discussed Wednesday was signed by the observatory partners. Partners include project manager Gary Sanders, a representative of the National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Science, Katsuhiko Sato of the National Institutes of Natural Sciences, Edward M. Stolper, interim president, California Institute of Technology, and former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and current University of California president Janet Napolitano.

A request to see the signed document was not returned by press time.

Stephanie Nagata, president of the Office of Mauna Kea Management, said the observatory’s decommissioning plan could set precedence for future leases.

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