Clashes over building the premier telescope in the Northern Hemisphere and preserving Mauna Kea as a sacred site have intensified.
|Update, June 21st: After a two-month voluntary hiatus, triggered by the events described below, construction on the Thirty Meter Telescope will resume on June 24th. According to Henry Yang, who chairs the TMT International Observatory Board, "Our period of inactivity has made us a better organization in the long run. We are now comfortable that we can be better stewards and better neighbors during our temporary and limited use of this precious land, which will allow us to explore the heavens and broaden the boundaries of science in the interest of humanity." (Full text of Yang's statement.)|
Astronomers have been building observatories on mountain summits for more than a century, usually without political complications. But that's not the case for the giant Thirty Meter Telescope, whose construction began last October atop Mauna Kea in Hawai‘i. The $1.5 billion project has become a flash point for the long-running dispute between astronomical interests (led by the University of Hawai'i) and inhabitants of the island who consider Mauna Kea sacred land.
In 2009, the nonprofit TMT Observatory Corporation selected Mauna Kea over four other prospective sites and began the process to gain approval for construction from the state's Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR). The summit is classified as a protected conservation district, and any construction must meet eight strict criteria to preserve its character — for example, development may not "cause substantial adverse impact to existing natural resources within the surrounding area, community, or region" and the "existing physical and environmental aspects of the land must be preserved or improved upon."
The BLNR granted conditional approval to TMT's comprehensive management plan in 2011, but a lawsuit was filed by Mauna Kea Anaina Hou (a loose consortium of residents who are trying to preserve and protect traditional practices involving the mountain and have long advocated for its protection), the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, and others. A court ruling last July cleared the way for the TMT's construction to begin, but the plaintiffs have appealed. Read Ian Lind's analysis for Honolulu Civil Beat for more background on the ongoing legal challenge.
In the meantime, construction of TMT began last October. Many, and perhaps most, of the Big Island's residents favor the project, because it brings much-needed employment to one of the state's lowest-income regions. Moreover, the project is providing an additional $1 million each year to create enhanced STEM opportunities for the island's students.
But opponents argue that the project should not proceed until the ongoing legal challenges are resolved. Fueled by social media, their protests have grown in intensity and scope. After interrupting the groundbreaking ceremony last year, they halted construction in late March and again in early April by blocking the road to the summit. More than two dozen protesters were arrested on April 2nd, prompting Governor David Ige to intervene by requesting a voluntary moratorium on construction.
Meanwhile, the University of Hawai‘i's Board of Regents held a meeting on April 16th to investigate the situation. Turnout was so great that many attendees were unable to address the panel, so a second meeting was held on April 26th and a third is planned today. And today trustees for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, charged with advocating for the rights and culture of the islands' indigeneous people, voted to rescind their previous approval for the TMT project — though the board stopped short of voting to oppose it.
Charges and Countercharges
Local resistance to construction of observatories atop Mauna Kea has been ongoing for decades, but the giant new telescope (with a dome 180 feet tall) truly dwarfs the other facilities now in place. Key objections center on whether native concerns for protecting the mountain's summit have been fairly considered, and whether chemical waste created by TMT represents an environmental threat to the island's aquifer.
The telescope's supporters have responded with a detailed defense by the University of Hawai‘i and with updates on the main TMT website and on a second site explaining TMT's benefits to Mauna Kea and its surroundings. On the issue of whether concerns about cultural heritage were given due consideration, TMT proponents point to the hundreds of pages of testimony gathered during the BNLR's hearings. Careful surveys found the observatory's site to be free of shrines, altars, or hidden burial grounds.On the latter point, project officials counter that neither the TMT itself nor the existing telescopes on the summit pose an environmental danger, underscoring that all of the observatory's waste will be securely transported off the summit.
Frustrated astronomers increasingly see their efforts to build a telescope with unprecedented potential being derailed by a highly vocal minority, while local opinion is fixating on the seeming indifference of researchers to indigenous religious beliefs and traditions. Dueling petitions, to rally support for and against TMT, have appeared online.
The already tense situation escalated on April 22nd, when University of California astronomer Sandra Faber circulated an email to rally support for TMT that referred to opponents as a "horde of native Hawaiians who are lying about the impact of the project on the mountain" — comments for which she later apologized.
Then, on April 26th, a group called Operation Green Rights hacked the TMT website and the main web portal for the State of Hawai‘i, a denial-of-service attack that shut down both for a few hours.
Although TMT has become a divisive issue, it's not easy to delineate who's on which side. Plenty of astronomers, suddenly seeing themselves portrayed as the "bad guys," are paying close(r) attention to the islanders' concerns (check out this video from the one of the protests). And conversely many of the Big Island's residents support not only the TMT's construction but also astronomy's scientific and economic benefits.
Read contributing editor Robert Zimmerman's article about the construction mega-telescopes in the March 2014 issue of Sky & Telescope.