By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The University of Hawaii may have to wait several years to get a new lease covering the astronomy facilities on Mauna Kea.
UH earlier this year had requested the state Department of Land and Natural Resources replace its two leases covering the Mauna Kea Science Reserve and Hale Pohaku Mid-Level Facilities with an agreement that would run through 2078. The leases are currently set to expire in 2033 and 2041.
But it chose to put that on hold this month while it conducts an environmental impact statement.
Jerry Chang, director of university relations with the University of Hawaii at Hilo, said the study will hopefully prevent any legal challenges to a new lease, assuming one is granted.
“If we don’t do it, there will be some appeal,” Chang said.
“We’re just trying to cover all our bases.”
Critics of the request, including the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, had said an EIS should be done to sort out the impacts of a longer lease and further development on the mountain.
An EIS would cost about $1 million, Chang said, and take 18 months to three years to complete.
The science reserve, established in 1968, covers 11,288 acres and hosts eight optical or infrared observatories in its 525-acre “astronomy precinct,” according to DLNR.
Chang acknowledged that results of the study, to be done by a consultant, could either help or hinder UH’s request and future projects on the mountain, including the Thirty Meter Telescope. Construction of the $1.3 billion telescope, one of the world’s largest, is scheduled to begin in April and be complete in 2022.
“If the EIS turns out negative, then we probably won’t get the extension for the lease,” he said.
“Anybody who invests a billion dollars would like a longer lease than 20 years,” Chang added, referring to the TMT.
But Sandra Dawson, TMT’s Hawaii community affairs manager, said the project’s board of directors is still going ahead with its plans, and hopes to have a sublease with UH completed shortly.
“We can get a sublease in the current master lease,” she said, adding the board expects UH to be granted a longer lease.
“The plans have not changed. We are moving forward.”
Another hurdle for the project remains a legal challenge of the construction permit granted by DLNR.
A group of petitioners filed the lawsuit, citing social and environmental impacts. A hearing was held Dec. 13 in Third Circuit Court in Hilo.
The TMT project is supported by observatories and universities from Canada, Japan, China, India and the United States.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.