Divisive telescope to restart building next week in Hawaii

Jennifer Sinco Kelleher and Caleb Jones
Associated Press
An illustration of the proposed giant telescope on Mauna Kea on Hawaii's Big Island.

Honolulu – Construction on a giant telescope will start again next week after lengthy court battles and passionate protests from those who say building it on Hawaii’s tallest mountain will desecrate land sacred to some Native Hawaiians.

State officials announced Wednesday that the road to the top of Mauna Kea mountain on the Big Island will be closed starting Monday as equipment is delivered.

Scientists revere the mountain for its summit above the clouds that provides a clear view of the sky with very little air and light pollution. Astronomers say it will allow them to reach back 13 billion years to answer fundamental questions about the advent of the universe.

The Thirty Meter Telescope project got approval to move forward last month. While it was the final legal step, opponents vowed to keep fighting and even get arrested if necessary to stop construction.

Gov. David Ige said unarmed National Guard units will be used to transport personnel and supplies and enforce some road closures, but they will not be used in a law enforcement capacity during planned protests.

Observatories and telescopes sit atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii's tallest mountain and the proposed construction site for a new $1.4 billion telescope, near Hilo, Hawaii.

“We just are asking people to be safe … we certainly would ask that they be respectful of those who have to work on this project,” Ige said. “We certainly are being respectful of those who choose to voice their disagreement with the project – we understand that that’s important as well.”

Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors said authorities have been training for potential clashes with telescope opponents for months.

“They are going to be prepared to respond to whatever type of activity takes place,” she said. “It will be reactive, and it will be dependent on what kind of conduct takes place.”

Four protesters held signs in the reception area of the governor’s office after officials announced construction plans. Protests at the mountain will be peaceful, Healani Sonoda-Pale said.

Protesters talk to reporters outside a news conference about the construction of a new Big Island telescope, Wednesday, July 10, 2019, in Honolulu.

Rhonda Vincent said closing the road to the mountain is like blocking access to a church.

“If we can’t access our own gods, our own spirituality, isn’t that wrong?” she said.

Opponents say the $1.4 billion telescope will desecrate sacred land. Supporters say the cutting-edge instrument will bring educational and economic opportunities to Hawaii.

“We aim to build the TMT for the benefit of all mankind and to understand the universe in which we all live,” said Henry Yang, chairman of the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory board of governors.

A group of universities in California and Canada make up the telescope company, with partners from China, India and Japan. The instrument’s primary mirror would measure 98 feet in diameter. Compared with the largest existing visible-light telescope in the world, it would be three times as wide, with nine times more area.

Plans for the project date to 2009, when scientists selected Mauna Kea after a five-year, around-the-world campaign to find the ideal site.

It won a series of approvals from Hawaii, including a permit to build on conservation land in 2011.

Protests disrupted a groundbreaking and Hawaiian blessing ceremony at the site in 2014. After that, the demonstrations intensified.

Construction stopped in April 2015 after protesters were arrested for blocking the work. A second attempt to restart construction a few months later ended with more arrests and crews pulling back.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige speaks during a news conference about the construction of a new Big Island telescope, Wednesday, July 10, 2019 in Honolulu.

The state Supreme Court upheld the project’s construction permit last year.

Because the telescope is such a divisive issue in Hawaii, some say they’re afraid to publicly support the project because they fear blowback from Native Hawaiian activists.

Telescope opponents have latched on to questions about funding gaps for the multination project.

It’s impossible for projects of this magnitude to have full funding, especially when a site hasn’t been secured, said Ross Shinyama, a lawyer representing TMT International Observatory, told the Hawaii Supreme Court last year. Certain nations won’t commit funds until a site is selected, he said.