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National Science Foundation hears comment on Green Bank Observatory DEIS

The science center auditorium at the Green Bank Observatory was packed with people from across Pocahontas County and beyond to make comments on a National Science Foundation [NSF] Draft Environmental Impact Statement regarding continuing funding from the NSF for the Pocahontas County radio astronomy facility.

The public meeting is the latest step in a long process that began in 2012 when a scientific review committee recommended that the NSF divest their portfolio of the 50 year old facility in order to move funding to other projects.  The DEIS was prepared in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA, which requires federal agencies to consider the potential environmental consequences of proposed actions prior to making final decisions.  The DEIS proposed five alternatives ranging from continuing full NSF funding of the site to demolition and site restoration.   Edward Ajhar,  the NSF Officer of Programming for the GBO explains which alternative the NSF would prefer.

“Action Alternative A is our agency, the NSF’s preferred alternative,” he said. “So this is the one we are identifying as our preferred alternative; and it is described as collaboration with interested parties for continued science and education focused operations with reduced NSF funding.”

Ajhar said this alternative could include demolition or mothballing of some parts of the site.

“We’ve identified in the draft which buildings and infrastructure could be retained, demolished, mothballed or abandoned [table 2.6-1 in the DEIS] ,” he said.  “But importantly these alternatives do not mandate the demolition of any buildings. So we put in the draft the most drastic thing that might happen, but we don’t really know what will happen until we finish this process and it could be that nothing changes here.”

42 people all spoke in favor of continued financial support for the GBO.  Of that number approximately 28 were directly involved with the GBO, either as employees at the site or as students and professors whose research is or has been  made possible by the GBO’s radio telescopes.

Mickey Holcomb is a materials physicist professor at WVU.  And while she’s not an astronomer, she has witnessed the impact that the GBO has had on the astronomy and physics department at the university.

“Most physicists and maybe even most scientists aren’t the best at communicating the importance of their work to young generations,” she said. “However this program has been really important, almost like a ‘gateway drug’ for bringing awareness to STEM fields in the state and beyond, and in particular has been critical for increasing the number of West Virginia girls going into these fields.”

One of those girls is Olivia Young, a sophomore in the astronomy department at WVU.  The seeds of her interest in an astrophysics career were born during her sophomore year in high school when she attended the annual math and science camp at the GBO.

“The impact of the Green Bank Telescope [GBT] is far reaching,” said Young, “and vitally important to the progression of scientific research, but also to the development of the youth of our state,” said Young. “I can say with absolute confidence that because I’m a West Virginian, I’m a scientist, and I’m a scientist because of the GBT.”

John Taylor is an amateur astronomer and vice president of the Central Appalachia Astronomy Club which hosts the annual Star Quest star party at the GBO.  He said the facility is unmatched as an educational facility and a great dark skies location.  He, like many other commentators, called on the NSF to continue to fund the GBO as much as possible.

Mike Holstine, Business Manager for the GBO, praised the NSF for exhaustive report, but also raised some concerns about some of the statistics cited in the DEIS, particularly as it relates to employee housing.

“If you go through the socio-economic part of this it mentions there is a 50 percent vacancy rate in the housing in Pocahontas County,” he said, “and therefore housing is freely available offsite and therefore housing is not necessary onsite.  And I kept thinking there is nowhere in this county that I can think of that has a 50 percent housing vacancy.”

“Then it occurred to me, I think, as I read through part of the appendices as to where those numbers came from is that they’re talking about hunting camps.  And there are structures, there are tons of hunting camps, but those are not houses.”

The comment period for the DEIS ends on January 8th, 2018.  The final Environmental Impact Statement is expected to be released in the fall of 2018, at which time there will be another public comment period. The NSF Record of Decision is expected by early 2019.

Comments may be submitted in these ways.

Email : envcomp-AST-greenbank@nsf.gov

Mail:  Ms. Elizabeth Pentecost, National Science Foundation

Division of Astronomical Sciences

2415 Eisenhower Avenue, Suite W1952

Alexandria, VA 22314

Additional information will be posted throughout the EIS process at www.nsf.gov/AST

Story By

Heather Niday

Heather is our Program Director. She started with Allegheny Mountain Radio as a volunteer deejay. She then joined the AMR staff in February of 2007. Heather grew up in the Richmond, Virginia, area and now lives in Arbovale, West Virginia with her husband Chuck. Heather is a wonderful flute player, and choir director for Arbovale UMC. You can hear Heather as the host of Noon Hour magazine Monday through Friday and also on Wednesday nights from 10 p.m. until midnight as she and Chuck co-host two hours of jazz on Something Different.

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