Maui Weekly

Window to the sky
July, 2002

Maui Light Pollution Hurts Haleakala Night Observatories

Important island asset may be damaged if no action taken soon. Rare clash of environmentalists versus Maui police. Hotels not ready to participate.

Dave DeLeon

Light pollution is brightening Maui's night sky so much that it is conceivable that Maui could lose its value as a window on the sky.

That was the message the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy's Mike Maberry gave recently during a special County Council Subcommittee on Outdoor Lighting.

According to measurements taken by UH astronomers, the night sky over Haleakala is a 50 percent brighter than it would be naturally because of the island's increasing light pollution. The additional light is already affecting the effectiveness of the telescopes, Maberry said.

Maberry, UH Information Science Professor Dr. Lee Altenberg, Kula community leader Steve Sutrov, and Maui Ocean Center's Education Director Hannah Bernard had been attempting to introduce the concept of the county and private property owners shifting over to low pressure sodium vapor outdoor lighting (LPS.) These lights put out a narrow spectrum of light that astronomers can filter out.

LPS lights also do not impact nesting Hawksbill turtles, Bernard said.

Normal lighting can be a disaster for the baby sea turtles, because the infants are attracted to the lights and wander inland, where the chances of survival diminish to about zero.

When County Council Public Works Committee Chairman Mike Molina convened the special Outdoor Lighting Subcommittee, Maberry, Altenberg, and Bernard were appointed as members. They pushed for a county outdoor lighting ordinance requiring retrofitting the island to LPS, pointing out that the Big Island had successfully shifted over to LPS over a decade ago in order to protect their astronomy assets on Mauna Kea.

But the forced retro-fit to LPS ran into a buzz-saw of opposition from hotel, business, and the Maui Police Department.

The Maui hotel industry is still trying to recoup its loses following September 11 and the cost of a retro-fit would be sizable, said Maui Hotel Association Executive Director Terryl Vencl. ``We don't need to go there right now,'' she said.

The hotels have to be concerned about the safety of their guests on the beaches at night. They also have to be concerned about protecting their properties from undesirable elements partying on the beach at night.

``Security has to be first and foremost for us.'' When a hotel ask the police what to do with areas where people congregate, ``they said to light it up,'' she said.

The Hotel Association began a full court press against the proposed retro-fit, including getting an Oahu-based lighting specialist appointed to the subcommittee and having MHA members participating in the meetings.

Meanwhile, the Maui Police Department has made it clear that it considers the poor coloration that happens under LPS lights to be detrimental to its ability to protect the public. During the July 10 meeting of the Subcommittee, Assistant Chief Robert Tam Ho was blunt.

``Our position is no. You didn't listen to us and we are not happy with you,'' the assistant police chief told the subcommittee members. ``We will testify when ever we can to put this thing down...It's bad for the county.'' The subcommittee members repeatedly attempted to find a point of compromise on the matter with Tam Ho but he was not having any of it. They talked of using a mix of normal white lighting and LPS that would allow the coloration to come out. They spoke of only using LPS lights in parking lots or in new subdivisions, but the Assistant Chief replied that the department would not accept any LPS lighting of any sort on the island, period.

His intransigence clearly stunned the subcommittee members and moved Chairman Molina to repeatedly attempt to remove any reference to LPS lighting from the draft ordinance.

``As a public official, public safety has to come first,'' he said in response to the police position. But the environmentally inclined subcommittee members kept replying that they still believed there was room to compromise.

Maberry was not impressed with the police department's position.

``The police would like to have a bright spot light every 10 feet,'' he said.

Maberry explained to the subcommittee that the county has to include some LPS lighting in the future, or the future of Maui astronomy would be dim.

The Haleakala observatories are already affected by the growth of lighting in Kahului, Kihei, Wailea and Makena, he said. The number of those lights can be expected to increase as the island continues to grow. Even if all the present and future outdoor lights are shielded and pointed at the ground, eventually the total amount of light reflecting off the ground will destroy the value of the Haleakala Observatories.

If it is the county's goal to maintain astronomy on Haleakala, the only choice is to start including LPS lights in the outdoor lighting mix or stop adding any more lights at all, he said.

Otherwise, ``it's inevit-able,'' Maberry said.

During the July 10 discussion, the subcommittee was also told there is an existing requirement for the county to shield all of its lights. That 1999 rule gave the county until 2004 to achieve that goal. So far, no effort has been made, or even funds appropriated, to do that.