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Fuel Spill Reignites Debate Over Military’s Land Lease

Above Photo: Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. and his executive team discuss the current status of the diesel fuel spill at the Maui Surveillance Complex atop the Haleakala summit on Thursday. From left are Chief of Staff Leo Caires, U.S. Space Force Col. Michal Holliday, Bissen, Maui County Managing Director Kekuhaupio “Keku” Akana and Maui County Chief of Communications and Public Affairs Mahina Martin. County of Maui / Gaylord Paul Garcia.

Mayor Visits Site, Calls For Community Engagement.

Hawaii – A Native Hawaiian advocacy group is calling for the state to cancel the Maui Space Surveillance System’s lease when it expires in 2031, following a mechanical issue that released 700 gallons of diesel fuel at the summit of Haleakala earlier this week.

The incident, which comes in the wake of fuel spills at military facilities on other islands in the past two years, has reignited the longstanding debate over the military’s use of land and the location of defense and research facilities on the summit of mountaintops that many Native Hawaiians consider sacred.

“Kanaka Maoli have consistently protested the construction of these telescopes on sacred Haleakala,” the organization Kako’o Haleakala said in a statement on Friday afternoon. “This negligence, along with similar incidents concerning toxic chemical contamination at Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, O’ahu, and Pohakuloa Training Area, Hawai’i Island, shows the incompetence of the United States Department of Defense to protect the most sacred sites of our wao Akua.”

The latest fuel spill at Haleakala “proves precisely why the State of Hawai’i should cancel this lease and others,” said the group, which launched a petition to lobby against renewing the Maui Space Surveillance System’s lease in 2031.

Hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel spilled after a pump for an on-site backup generator at the site failed to shut off due to a mechanical issue on Sunday night. Site maintenance personnel discovered the problem the next morning and immediately deactivated the transfer pump, the U.S. Space Forces Indo-Pacific said Tuesday night.

The incident prompted swift and sharp criticism from state and federal lawmakers, with the state Department of Health and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency making plans to visit the site next week.

On Thursday, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. traveled to the summit to see the spill site firsthand. He said he spoke to Brig. Gen. Anthony Mastalir, commander of the U.S. Space Forces Indo-Pacific, “who has conveyed that the Space Force understands its responsibility to our community and is committed to full accountability for remediation and repair.”

“I have made it clear to General Mastalir and his team that the sacredness of Haleakala cannot be minimized and that the reverence of this wahi pana requires respectful, thorough and complete attention,” Bissen said in a statement Thursday night. “I’ve also communicated that it’s important that the Space Force engages with organizations with longstanding kuleana to Haleakala such as Friends of Haleakala, Kilakila ‘O Haleakala and Kako’o O Haleakala. The assurances I’ve received indicate that they fully intend to address the impacts of the oil spill, and we will be closely monitoring and expecting regular status reports.”

The fuel spill reopened old wounds for groups that have spent years protesting the construction of telescopes at the summit of Haleakala, long revered as “a wao Akua, realm of the gods” and land that “belonged to the Hawaiian Kingdom until the illegal 1898 annexation when the United States occupied them,” Kako’o Haleakala said.

“This is a wahi kapu and a wahi pana of our wao Akua. Our people have warned for generations of the dangers of industrial development in conservation zones with fragile ecosystems,” the group said. “The summit and crater area of Haleakala is sacred to Native Hawaiians, who have always been active and vocal opponents of these observatories.”

The group pointed to peaceful protests led by Kanaka Maoli at the State Capitol in the early 1960s to oppose the observatories, with more recent demonstrations attempting to halt construction of the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope atop Haleakala in 2015 and 2017, leading to dozens of arrests.

Facilities like the solar telescope and the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope atop Maunakea have long spurred debate — some Native Hawaiians say there is room for both cultural practices and scientific advances, pointing to long traditions of wayfinding and the study of stars, while others say the observatories amount to desecration and should be taken down.

The Maui Space Surveillance Complex is run by a U.S. Space Force squadron and contains the DOD’s largest optical telescope designed for tracking and imaging satellites. It sits on land owned by the University of Hawai’i and leased by the U.S. Department of Defense, a UH spokesperson said Friday.

“The University of Hawai’i is working closely with all parties involved in the recent fuel spill on Haleakala to ensure that the spill is fully remediated and to perform a root cause analysis to prevent any future recurrence,” UH said in a statement to The Maui News on Friday afternoon. “UH takes its role as landowner of this very special place very seriously and expects all lessees within the Haleakala High Altitude Observatory Site to follow applicable land use and environmental laws as well as the Haleakala High Altitude Observatory Site Management Plan.”

UH said that it has formed an internal working group to monitor the Space Force’s compliance efforts and plans to issue a letter to the Department of Defense in the coming days outlining UH’s expectations. It’s also working with UH-Maui College to provide updates to the Native Hawaiian community.

“The university expects that USSF (U.S. Space Force) will receive more specific guidance from regulatory authorities on how the spill must be addressed/mitigated and the steps that should be taken to prevent an accident like this from happening again,” UH said.

As for calls to not renew the complex’s lease when it expires in 2031, UH said there’s been no discussion yet on the issue.

Responding to Kako’o Haleakala’s comments, the military reaffirmed its commitment to working with the community and focusing on ways to prevent incidents like this.

“The Department of the Air Force is committed to being transparent in its handling of environmental issues and maintaining open dialogue with communities, regulators, and other stakeholders in Hawaii,” a Pacific Air Forces spokesperson told The Maui News on Friday afternoon. “U.S. Space Forces Indo-Pacific is assessing the site to determine impacts of the spill and begin remediation efforts. As a military institution serving and operating in the community, we have a responsibility to protect and preserve the environment. We are focused on lessons learned to prevent any incidents like this from occurring in the future.”

The spokesperson said that more information on the cleanup process would be shared next week.

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