Scientist disputes claims TMT construction spills could contaminate aquifer

UH hydrologist disputing claims that TMT could impact the Big Island's drinking water

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - A University of Hawaii geochemist is disputing claims that the Thirty Meter Telescope could impact the Big Island’s drinking water.

Still, environmentalists are concerned about the aquifer and are demanding a contested case hearing over the project’s wastewater permit.

Deborah Ward, of the Sierrra Club Moku Loa on the Big Island, says she’s wastewater could pollute the island’s water supplies over the Thirty Meter Telescope’s 10-year construction timeline.

“There are a lot of leaks and spills that we could see from the last time and when the construction equipment was up in 2015,” she said. “At the time, they called it ‘condensation’, but because we were up there we could see that it was greasy and black and it was going directly on to the ground and into the ground water.”

But geochemist Donald Thomas, director of the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes at UH-Hilo, agrees with TMT’s environmental impact statement ― that the project will not impact Hawaii’s aquifer.

He believes the critics have it wrong.

"Their concerns are not based on good science. They have not investigated what data is available or really try to understand it," he said.

Thomas and his team have drilled research wells at the shoreline around Hilo and Hamakua.

He says if there were a contamination spill, it would take 5,000 years to reach the nearest aquifer, which is 12 miles away from Mauna Kea in Waikii Ranch.

"The water in that well is about 5,000 years old," he said.

He says because of the summit's dense rock and hydrology of the island, it's virtually impossible to contaminate the water supply from Mauna Kea.

“In terms of a release at the site impacting any of the drinking water sources down at the lower elevation, I think the probability is so near zero. I can’t distinguish it from zero,” said Thomas.

Lake Waiau at Mauna Kea has been another source of concern for many, but Thomas says it’s sitting on an impermeable layer of ash and clay with no direct link to the water table.

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