What was the purpose of the National Science Foundation meetings that happened on Hawaiʻi Island in August related to Mauna Kea and the TMT project? I live on a different island, and I could not attend. Will communities on other islands be consulted?

Photo: Kauila Kopper

By Kauila Kopper, NHLC Litigation Director

For the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) project to be built, numerous legal and financial requirements must be met. On the finance side, the TMT project has long anticipated investment by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and a recent report from the astronomy community indicates that NSF funding in excess of a billion dollars is needed to cover some of the project’s construction and maintenance costs.

Before NSF can invest in the project, it must comply with evaluation and consultation processes required by two federal laws: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – because of the significant impact the TMT project would have on the environment – and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), because Mauna Kea is a site of “traditional religious and cultural significance” to Native Hawaiians.

NEPA and NHPA have different purposes. NEPA is aimed at assessing the environmental impact of a federal project as well as alternatives. The meetings on Hawaiʻi Island in August were to receive public comments on the scope of potential TMT impacts that should be included with NSF’s required environmental impact study under NEPA.

NHPA is aimed at ensuring that “cultural preservation values” are included in federal agency decisions regarding historic properties by requiring a consultation process with the local community, including Native Hawaiian organizations. NHPA consultation is often called a “Section 106” process.

In July, NSF published a 78-page draft community engagement plan, outlining the ways it intends to comply with NEPA, Section 106, and other steps it plans to take related to its decision-making. You can read the plan, submit comments, and stay updated on NSF’s decision-making process by visiting its website at https://beta.nsf.gov/tmt.

NSF anticipates completing the NEPA and Section 106 process in roughly two years. The timing is, in part, by a NEPA requirement that environmental impact assessments are completed within that amount of time.

As of the conclusion of the first four scoping meetings in August, it’s not clear whether NSF will host additional scoping meetings on Hawaiʻi Island or on other islands. If NSF holds more public in-person meetings, they have committed to sharing that on NSF’s social media channels and via radio, newspaper, and email notices. In addition to in-person opportunities to provide comments, NSF will accept written comments regarding the draft community engagement plan and scope of its environmental impact study until Sept. 17, 2022.

Initiation of the Section 106 NHPA process regarding the impact on Mauna Kea as a historic cultural site is separate from the NEPA process. However, Native Hawaiian people or organizations that “attach religious and cultural significance” to Mauna Kea and want to participate in that process can make that request now. You can do that by writing to NSF, explaining the religious and cultural significance the mauna has to you as a Native Hawaiian, and requesting to be a consulting party when the Section 106 process begins. The point of contact NSF has identified in its plan for correspondence and questions is:

Ms. Elizabeth Pentecost RE: ELT
National Science Foundation
Room W9152
2415 Eisenhower Ave.
Alexandria, VA 22314
Phone: (703) 292-4907
Email: EIS.106.TMT@nsf.gov

People interested in participating as a consulting party in the Section 106 process may also find the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s handbook helpful regarding Section 106 consultation with Native Hawaiian Organizations. The handbook is available online at: www.achp.gov/sites/default/files/guidance/2020-01/ConsultationwithNHOshandbookupdate29Jan2020final.pdf

E Nīnau iā NHLC provides general information about the law. E Nīnau iā NHLC is not legal advice. You can contact NHLC about your legal needs by calling NHLC’s offices at 808-521-2302. You can also learn more about NHLC at nativehawaiianlegalcorp.org.