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Green Bank Observatory’s future still uncertain

By TINA ALVEY

The Register-Herald

GREEN BANK, W.Va. — Interested parties moved a step closer Wednesday to learning the ultimate fate of the Green Bank Observatory.

Under Action Alternative A under consideration for disposition of the Green Bank Observatory, the immense Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope and “other appropriate telescopes” would remain on the property, along with “supporting facilities for education and research.” Structures not needed to meet GBO’s new “operational goals” would be safe-abandoned (removed from service without demolishing), mothballed or demolished.
(Register-Herald photo by Rick Barbero)

Having had its title as a “National Radio Astronomy Observatory” stripped away, along with 35 percent of its federal operating funds, the GBO has spent the past year a little too close to the chopping block for comfort.

Owned by the National Science Foundation, the GBO has been a center of scientific research since the late 1950s. But last fall the NSF filed a notice of intent in the Federal Register to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement in anticipation of making further changes at the Pocahontas County facility.

Proposed alternatives for GBO’s future as outlined in that Federal Register notice included everything from maintaining the status quo — tagged the “No-Action Alternative” — to demolishing the entire complex.

A year later, the NSF has released the long-awaited Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which recommends an alternative under which GBO would “collaborate” with new stakeholders to keep the facility operating as a science- and education-focused operation.

Under this plan (Action Alternative A), NSF could either retain the 2,200-acre property or transfer it to new owners.

Of the four alternatives presented in the DEIS, this one would involve the least change to the current facility. The final decision on which plan will be implemented has not yet been made.

Under Action Alternative A, the immense Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope and “other appropriate telescopes” would remain on the property, along with “supporting facilities for education and research.” Structures not needed to meet GBO’s new “operational goals” would be safe-abandoned (removed from service without demolishing), mothballed or demolished.

Another highlight of the preferred alternative is that operation staffing levels would remain roughly the same as the current levels. The observatory now has 112 year-round employees, a number that swells to around 140 in the summer.

“This action alternative would meet the purpose of reducing the funding required from NSF and allow continued benefits to the scientific and educational communities,” authors of the DEIS wrote.

“However, this alternative could occur only if new and/or existing collaborators come forward to participate as collaborating parties with viable proposed plans to provide additional non-NSF funding in support of their science- and education-focused operations. Collaborators are being sought and could include agencies, educational institutions, nonprofit entities, industrial or commercial ventures, or private individuals.”

Other plans could still be considered.

Action Alternative B would also involve collaboration with outside entities to maintain GBO as a technology and education park, but would focus on tourism, with the observatory serving as a “local attraction.” Among the large equipment on the grounds, only the 40-foot telescope would remain active, and staff would be reduced.

Action Alternative C would suspend — or “mothball” — operations, including essential buildings, telescopes and other equipment, in the hope of being able to resume operations at some point in the future. Staffing would be drastically reduced.

Action Alternative D offers the most draconian solution of all — complete demolition of the site, some of which would be accomplished through the use of explosives. Only “vegetation maintenance staff” would be retained for a period of up to 18 months. After that, staffing would cease.

• • •

Two “scoping meetings” were held at the observatory last November as part of the EIS process. A total of 333 people registered at the two meetings, 58 of whom offered oral comments. In addition, 817 written letters and emails were received by NSF during a designated comment period.

The public comments were overwhelmingly opposed to closing GBO, with almost 94.5 percent standing against closure, and less than 1 percent (only one individual) favoring it. The lone proponent cited GBO’s failure to discover extraterrestrial life as the primary rationale for supporting closure.

Those opposed to closure offered many reasons, including the facility’s contributions to science, its prominence as an educational destination, GBO’s sharing of emergency services with nearby communities and the potential impact on the local economy if the observatory should close.

But it turns out that simply taking no action on the proposed cessation of funding for the Green Bank Observatory was never truly on the table, despite being identified at the scoping meetings as an option.

That revelation was buried in the 263-page DEIS that was made public Wednesday. The DEIS noted that the No-Action Alternative was only a placeholder, used as a “baseline to evaluate the impacts” of the alternatives that were actually in play.

Action Alternative A comes closest to offering what the No-Action Alternative appeared to promise.

• • •

Elected officials weighed in on the DEIS’s “agency-preferred alternative” Wednesday.

“The Green Bank Observatory is a national treasure that helps to foster discovery and inspire future generations to pursue science,” U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said.

“As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I have supported its continued operations and worked with the National Science Foundation every step of the way as this study was being developed. I will continue to advocate for Green Bank, the talented scientists who work there and the students it inspires.”

U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins said, “Green Bank Observatory is an outstanding resource not only for West Virginia but the larger scientific community. As Green Bank advances our understanding of our universe, there is still a role for the National Science Foundation and federal funding to play.

“I strongly support Green Bank and its employees and urge the NSF not to give up on this critical resource. I am working closely with the agency and interested parties to preserve the Green Bank Observatory as an educational and scientific resource for West Virginians.”

• • •

A public meeting will be held at the GBO Science Center from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 30 to give people the opportunity to comment on the DEIS. A final EIS (FEIS) that considers those comments will then be prepared. The National Science Foundation will issue a Record of Decision no earlier than 30 days following the publication of the FEIS, thus ending NSF’s decision-making process.

A 60-day comment period begins today (Nov. 9). Comments may be mailed to: NSF c/o Elizabeth Pentecost, Re: Green Bank Observatory, 2415 Eisenhower Ave., Suite W9152, Alexandria VA 22314. Comments may also be emailed to: [email protected], with the subject line Green Bank Observatory.

To read the entire DEIS online, go to https://www.nsf.gov/mps/ast/env_impact_reviews/greenbank/eis/DEIS_Green_Bank_Observatory.pdf.

Email: [email protected]

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