In TMT Hearing, Sierra Club Director Makes Several Dubious Assertions

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Screenshot 2017-02-03 11.25.47
Sierra Club, Hawai`i Chapter, executive director Marti Townsend testifying at the TMT contested case hearing as a KaHEA board member. Credit: NaLeoTV

On January 10, Marti Townsend, executive director of the Hawai`i Chapter of the Sierra Club, took the witness stand in the contested case hearing on the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). She testified for the better part of five hours, with most of that time spent responding to softball questions lobbed her way by a dozen or so parties to the contested case who oppose the TMT.

In the 2011 contested case hearing over the TMT, Townsend, who is an attorney, represented KaHEA: the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance. This time around, she was testifying, she said, as a volunteer board member of KaHEA, with her written testimony appearing on KaHEA letterhead.

Environment Hawai`i asked Townsend for comment on each of the issues raised below. She did not provide any.


The first cross-examiner was Deborah Ward, who asked about the potential impacts of the TMT on views from several areas near the summit. Relying on a site visit made in 2011, when a red balloon was lofted from the proposed TMT site to the full height of the telescope, Townsend stated that the position of the balloon showed that it would impossible to look toward Haleakala from the Keck telescopes on the summit ridge without seeing the TMT.

Townsend added: “We also engaged in another simulation, where we went up to Pu`u Poliahu … and there, too, the red balloon was still in the sky. And from there you could see that it would be impossible to get a view of, say, the rising sun without the TMT in the viewplane.”

In fact, the proposed TMT site is almost directly north of Pu`u Poliahu and could not possibly interfere with views of the sunrise from Pu`u Poliahu.

Ward then asked if, from Poliahu, the TMT would also obstruct views of Pu`u Makanaka. Makanaka is a cinder cone where a number of pre-contact Hawaiian sites and burials have been located.

“Yes,” Townsend replied.

Makanaka, however, is about 3 ½ miles northeast of Poliahu and not visible from Poliahu even on a clear day, since the summit ridge, at 13,780 feet, rises between those two cinder cones.

Puu picture
Credit: TMT EIS


Building Size

Throughout her testimony, at several points, Townsend stated the Thirty Meter Telescope would be “an 18-story, five-acre building,” describing it as “a structure bigger than anything on the island of Hawai`i.”

While the height of the dome would be around the same as an 18-story building, the telescope base would be around 215 feet in diameter, with a footprint of around 35,000 square feet, or about 0.85 acres. Even adding the support structure (21,000 square feet) and utility building (6,000 square feet), the total ground occupied by the telescope and ancillary structures comes to about an acre and a half.

It is unclear whether it was Townsend or someone else who first described the TMT in this fashion. However, at least one witness who followed Townsend, Kehau Abad, used the identical description in her testimony.

The Wekiu Bug

Credit: Karl Magnacca
Wekiu bug on Mauna Kea. Credit: Karl Magnacca

In the first TMT contested case hearing, the tiny wekiu bug, found only at the summit of Mauna Kea, was a candidate endangered species. Soon after that case ended, the wekiu bug was removed from the candidate species list.

Yet when asked by Ward to discuss the widened jeep trail leading to the TMT site, Townsend said that the widening had destroyed wekiu bug habitat. “It’s been decimated,” she said. “That cinder has been compacted. And wekiu can’t live in compacted cinder. …  They are endangered, and they are a beautiful symbol of the kind of unique and amazing natural environment in Hawai`i. ”

“When you say endangered, you mean rare and threatened?” Ward asked.

“Right,” Townsend replied, “but their habitat is being lost and they are at risk of being listed as an endangered species.”

The university’s Comprehensive Management Plan for Mauna Kea states this: “ten years of study following the 1997-98 surveys suggest that wekiu bugs are still abundant on Mauna Kea, and that they are able to reside in both undeveloped and developed areas at the summit.” They are not federally listed either as threatened or endangered.

Comprehensive Management Plan

In 2006, Judge Glenn Hara determined that there could be no new telescopes until the University of Hawai`i had completed a comprehensive management plan (CMP). Townsend criticized the resulting plan for dealing only with university-managed lands, “when it should be all [Department of Land and Natural Resource’s] property, all of the property under the DLNR’s responsibility.”

“Judge Hara’s ruling concluded that in order to truly manage a Conservation District, the management plan must cover multiple land uses and must take into consideration the entire Conservation District,” Townsend said, “and there was some discussion about how the Conservation District of Mauna Kea is more than just the astronomy precinct and it’s more than just the summit. It could be all the way down to the Saddle Road so it could include all the palila habitat at the lower levels.”

Hara’s order actually stated that the CMP was to address “multiple land uses within the larger overall area that the [University of Hawai`i Institute for Astronomy] controls at the top of Mauna Kea in the Conservation District.”

Telescope Permits

In response to a question from Clarence Ching, Townsend stated as a fact that many of the telescopes were built without permits.

Ching: “Do you know, historical-wise, whether all of the observatories on the mountain were constructed in compliance with Conservation District Use Permits?”

Townsend: “Oh, they weren’t. Many of them were retroactively permitted.”

Ching: “Really? So how did that happen?”

Townsend: “I’m not exactly sure how that happened. It’s shocking to me. But through the early ’80s to mid-’90s several telescopes were built without Conservation District Use Permits.”

Petitioner Harry Fergerstrom picked up on that point. “So, they got away with it 13 times already,” he said.

To which Townsend replied, “Several telescopes were built without permits at all, at the time.”

Sam Lemmo, administrator of the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, speculated that Townsend may have been referring to the Submillimeter Array (SMA), which consists of eight six-meter dishes that are arrayed at any given time in configurations that can mimic the collecting ability of a single dish up to half a kilometer in diameter. Thirteen pads were built to accommodate the SMA dishes. The SMA, Lemmo said, “is considered one telescope observatory,” but opponents have argued that it should be considered 13.


Fergerstrom also picked up on a statement Townsend had made about noise generated by telescopes at the summit. “You said the noise was ‘particularly intrusive,’” Fergerstrom said, then asking her to elaborate.

“As it is now,” Townsend replied, “it’s hard to find a quiet spot on the summit area of Mauna Kea. During the day, to keep the telescopes cool, air conditioning compressors – engines, are going all the time. They’ll shut off, and they’ll turn on. And they’re going at different times. It’s a loud rumble, an engine sound. Almost like a plane. And the TMT, which would be significantly larger than the existing telescopes, would require similar air conditioning. And so the noise that will be created, if the TMT were constructed, would just be immense and would make it even harder to find a quiet spot on the mountain.”

The environmental impact statement for the abandoned Keck outrigger telescope proposal, published in 2006 and referred to often and approvingly by TMT opponents, describes background noise levels both at the summit and the Hale Pohaku facilities, at the 9,000-foot level, as consisting “primarily of sounds associated with the wind and vehicular noise. The summit of Mauna Kea normally has a low ambient noise level. Existing facility operations generate extremely low noise levels.”

Glaciers and a Sinking Summit

Under questioning from Lanny Sinkin, Townsend stated that the development of the TMT would continue the “urban sprawl” of telescopes on the Mauna Kea summit, resulting in an “industrial park up there.”

“And you can see that on Mauna Kea already. … You had one telescope in 1968 and that telescope spawned another one … so you had sprawl on the summit and as a result the summit is now 38 feet shorter than it was before the university leased it. And that’s just unreal.”

As a result, Townsend continued, “cultural practitioners have now identified Pu`u Wekiu as the relocated summit because the original summit is so much shorter now.”

Pu`u Wekiu has been recognized as the summit of Mauna Kea since at least 1955, when a U.S. Geological Survey benchmark was placed on the summit, identifying it as having an elevation of 13,796 feet above mean sea level.

Townsend also apparently believes that glaciers are still to be found on the mountain.

Cindy Freitas asked Townsend if she had knowledge of the glaciers on Mauna Kea. “I know that they exist, that’s about it,” Townsend replied.

Glaciers last existed on Mauna Kea around 10,000 years ago.

— Patricia Tummons

5 Responses

  1. Mililani B. Trask

    Aloha Pat,

    Thus is not the first time that Marti Townsend has not been honest & truthful about issues of critical import to Hawaiians & our culture.
    When the issue was the Northwest Hawaiian Islands Monument, Townsend and Sierra Club had initially revealed that the US had approved the testing & importation of coral diseases into the pristine area that were later “inadvertently” dumped into the sea. Their
    case was filed but never pursued, later they decided to support the expansion joining the team of the mighty PEW Foundation that backed the Monument as well as an exemption for the US military activities in the area including unlimited fishing. Mart Townsend & Sierra Club would not support the subsistence fish rights of Hawaiians.

    Credible publications like Environment Hawaii should heads up whenever Townsend & Sierra Club are involved as their testimony and data may be fabricated for political reasons. Many no longer trust Townsend, her board or their public representations.

    Mililani B. Trask

  2. The claim that the TMT would be “a structure bigger than anything on the island of Hawai`i” is one that gets repeated quite a bit. It is not even close! The largest structure on the island is probably the Prince Kuhio Plaza with 510 thousand square feet of retail space. The plaza simply dwarfs the TMT footprint by a factor of ten!

    This and so many other misrepresentations of the facts by telescope opponents has grown tiresome, making a mockery of the contested case process.

  3. K, Shanaman

    I am a Geologist and Vulcanologist and have several issues with all the lies being told in the testimony over the last several months. I have been appaled at the distortions, lies, fabrications and statements that are JUST PLAIN WRONG! I will set the record straight for just one of these distortions. In one statement:
    (“And you can see that on Mauna Kea already. … You had one telescope in 1968 and that telescope spawned another one … so you had sprawl on the summit and as a result the summit is now 38 feet shorter than it was before the university leased it. And that’s just unreal.”)

    The island has not gotten shorter by 38 feet. The entire “Big Island” does sink under the weight of the island on the sea bed. When you see an earthquake that is 34 miles deep, it is caused by the entire weight of the island and gravity pushing down on the sea floor. It is a natural phenomena. The weight of the telescopes are minutia compared to the combined weight of the big island pressing down 30,000 ft on the sea bed. For those of NO scientific expertise, SHUT UP! Your ignorance and ALTERNATIVE FACTS are more than disingenuous, they are outright lies.
    It;s time to end this nonsence and close the testimony of people who have no clue and contine to distort the facts and are not able to reason in truth!

  4. Marti Townsend

    Aloha Pat,

    Thank you for the opportunity to defend my statements in this comment. How ironically hopeful it is to see my work is building common ground between you and Mililani Trask. 😉

    1. On my job. This may be a small point, but I am not in fact the Executive Director of the Sierra Club. That is Michael Brune. I am the chapter director for the Hawaiʻi Chapter. The Hawaiʻi Chapter has not taken a position on the TMT, but its volunteer-led group on Hawaiʻi Island did take a position in opposition. For those not reading the whole transcript (and I certainly do not blame you), I took the day off from my day-job to testify, paid my own way there and back. 

    2. On ruining the viewplane. My testimony, like that offered by others, demonstrated how the TMT would introduce a new, metallic obstruction for anyone looking for an intact natural viewplane while on or near the summit of Mauna Kea. Pu’u Poliahu is one place to currently enjoy such an intact viewplane. I am pretty sure I got the name right for the puʻu across the northern plateau from Puʻu Poliahu, but even if I didn’t my point stands: building the TMT on the northern plateau would put a big shiny building in the way of anyone trying to enjoy the 360-degree view from Puʻu Poliahu. And yes, you can see the sun rise and set from there. And yes, you could see from there the red balloon simulating the height of the TMT during the site visit first contested case hearing. What would be really helpful in this discussion is a viewplane analysis worthy of the title, but we don’t have that, otherwise we’d be citing to it.

    3. On size. The TMT would have a footprint of 5 acres. TMT FEIS Vol. 1, page 2-10. 

    4. On wekiu. It is a rare bug found only on the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Its extremely limited habitat is destroyed by construction activities on the mountains, like roads and telescopes. See, “R.A. Englund, Range, habitat, and ecology of the wekiu bug (Nysius Wekiuicola), a rare insect species unique to Mauna Kea, Hawaii Island,” Final report, 2002. That’s my point. 

    5. On comprehensive. Judge Hara’s order was that the management plan offered during the permitting process for the abandoned Outrigger telescopes was insufficient because it was not “comprehensive.” In his written decision he said, “The resource that needs to be conserved, protected and preserved is the summit area of Mauna Kea, not just the area of the Outrigger Telescopes Project.” If only the telescope project area is planned for, Judge Hara concluded, “the result will not be consistent with the purposes of appropriate management nor the promotion of long-term sustainability of protected resources required by Haw. Rev. Stat. §183-1.” Hawai‘i Revised Statutes Chapter 183 governs conservation districts. The driving concern of this court ruling was protection of the conservation district, not the project area. This court opinion is consistent with previous management plans for Mauna Kea, such as the 1977 plan, which considered the conservation district from the summit to Saddle Road.

    6. On following the law. The 1998 Auditor’s Report of UH’s mismanagement of Mauna Kea, on page 33: “Between 1967 And 1970 the first three telescopes were built by NASA, the Air Force, and the University. However, the university failed to submit a CDUA for these 3 telescopes. Not until 1976 or almost 6 years later did the university notice this error and submit the required CDUA. The Department [of Land and Natural Resources] took no punitive action.” Page 3 of the TMT’s own Conservation District Use Application (CDUA) confirms this with a list of telescope-related facilities and their after-the-fact permits. 

Section 1.5 of the EIS for the abandoned Outrigger Telescopes provides a “Comprehensive Search for Environmental Information” conducted on Mauna Kea up to that point. There it describes a “project description” for the Subaru telescope (1979), but no EIS; a project description and environmental assessment for the Gemini telescope (1999), but no EIS. There are a couple telescopes on that list that received an “environmental review” by the Research Corporation of UH (an environmental review is not an actual thing). The one I love the most is the EIS for UH/IRTF/CTHR, which makes clear that it “is concerned with the on-going operations of the existing University of Hawaii (UH) telescopes, [and] the construction of two new telescopes.” That is to say, the UH telescopes were getting their EIS after they were built. And that was my point.

    7. On glaciers. I stand by my admission at the time to not knowing a thing about glaciers beyond that I have heard knowledgeable people discuss their existence. But since you make a thing of it, I asked google and it pointed me to this slim read that talks about glacier leftovers found beneath the surface of Mauna Kea in 1974: Sherrod, D.R., 2007, Geologic Map of the State of Hawaiʻi: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2007-1089.

    I get it. Environment Hawaiʻi disagrees with me because I find the construction of telescopes in the conservation district indefensible. And it is okay, reasonable people can disagree. But I think it is time astronomers — and their environmental advocates — come to terms with the fact that this fight is less about telescopes and defending science, and more about protecting our conservation areas and ensuring a fair application of the laws designed to protect them. Standing up for Mauna Kea against this massive construction project is standing up for conservation districts everywhere. Defending the amazing natural beauty and cultural significance of this unique mountain, helps defend the shorelines and forests designated for conservation but coveted for profit by developers of subdivisions and hotels.

    The fact that you may not have seen the opposition to the TMT until recently does not mean it was not there. The struggle to defend Mauna Kea has a long and storied history. You should look up the report Peter Adler completed for the Moore Foundation that outlined the history of community opposition, broken promises, and built telescopes on this mountain. Adler anticipated that the exact thing we are experiencing today would happen because there has never been a genuine reconciliation between those pushing to build (we promise its the last) telescope and those defending the irreplaceable from permanent destruction. Promising money and jobs, hosting advisory councils and listening sessions — that is not genuine reconciliation.

    The struggle to defend Mauna Kea has taught me, a bona fide environmentalist, so much about a way of life that truly recognizes nature as king. In this era of unhinged capitalism and enduring colonialism, we could all stand to learn much more from such a culture.

    I hope this information is helpful.

  5. Bianca Isaki

    K, Shamanan: The claim is that the summit has been shortened because 38 feet off the top of the summit was blasted off for grading/ construction. The claim was not that the island is sinking.

    Andrew Cooper: Kuhio Plaza is about 30% larger than the TMT’s 8 acre footprint in terms of square footage. But the claim is that the TMT would be the tallest building on Hawai`i island, not that it would occupy the most square footage.

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