Thursday, April 09, 2015

Some details on the protests that have halted the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)

by Salman Hameed


Over the past few years, I have posted about the controversy over telescopes on top of Mauna Kea. For example, see the following posts:
Thirty Meter Telescope Inching Towards Final Approval
Thirty Meter Telescope Approved on top of Mauna Kea
Update on Mauna Kea: Telescope project given green light
University of Hawaii Regents Approve Plans for TMT on Mauna Kea
Management Plan Approved for Telescopes on Sacred Mauna Kea
Hawaii-Tribune Herald on the recent Mauna Kea lawsuit decision
Mauna Kea Observatories Update Is it good news that Maui is picked as the site for a new Solar telescope?

The telescope construction was supposed to start last week, but the protestors blocked the path to the site. Thirty of the protestors were arrested. Here is the news story about it and the footage of the actual arrests. While the arrests are terrible, it is touching to see cops first embracing the protestors before handcuffing them:


After these arrests, the protest gained even more momentum. And now the governor of Hawaii has asked everyone to take a "timeout" and has halted construction of TMT for a week:
Gov. David Ige announced Tuesday that construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop one of the most sacred sites for native Hawaiians would come to a halt, at least temporarily. Ige characterized the one-week pause in construction as a “timeout.” 
“There will be no construction activities this week,” the governor told reporters. “This will give us some time to engage in further conversations with the various stakeholders that have an interest in Mauna Kea and its sacredness and its importance in scientific research and discovery going forward.” 
Reaction from native Hawaiians to Ige’s announcement was unmistakingly skeptical. Kahookahi Kanuha of Kailua-Kona believes the pause in construction of the telescope is a delay tactic. 
"They are looking for us to leave,” he said Tuesday in an interview with Oiwi TV. “The more down time they have, the more they think that we'll have to go back to work and go back to our kuleana (responsibilities). And the truth of the matter is we do. However, many of us are willing to drop that kuleana because those are jobs and this is our responsibility." 
TMT project manager Gary Sanders issued a statement shortly after the governor’s announcement to clear up what he says are misconceptions about the project. 
"The TMT site was selected with great care and respect," Sanders wrote. “There are no archaeological shrines or burial sites within TMT's project site. Comprehensive research by expert hydrologists confirm there is no threat to the aquifer. TMT agrees with Governor Ige's request for a timeout this week and an ongoing dialogue on issues." 
A group calling itself the Sacred Mauna Kea Hui released a statement of its own, saying the governor’s timeout should be made permanent, and that Ige should use the pause in construction to examine possible breeches of public trust. 
"Although the Sacred Mauna Kea Hui appreciates a welcome reprieve from the desecration of our sacred mountain summit and endangerment of our fresh water aquifer and endangered species environment, we know that these are still in danger unless a permanent moratorium is obtained,” the statement read. “This reprieve will also give the multi-billion dollar international TMT corporation, which has been allowed to circumvent the law, time to begin its process of identifying a new location outside of Hawaii for their TMT project.”
I was trained as an astronomer and have used a telescope on Mauna Kea. But my sympathies here are largely with the Hawaiians. There is too much injustice and toxic history linked to American actions in Hawai'i. Yes, astronomers had nothing to do with what happened in the late 19th or in the first half of the 20th century. But the large visible observatory domes (they were never supposed to be so prominent on the mountain), for some Hawaiians, did become a reminder of earlier US actions. I think most astronomers have failed to appreciate these historical injustices. Nor have astronomers fully realized the enormous power differential between the marginalized Native Hawaiian groups and state backed universities as well as state agencies like NASA. The TMT, after all, is a $1.4 billion project! To add to all this complexity, the project will and does bring a lot of money to this poor state.

But money is not the issue. The TMT folks did have a sophisticated team that spent seven years clearing all sorts of hurdles and court cases. But the process is not really the issue - even though that is what the protestors are focusing on. The battle over TMT is really about cultural identity and historical injustices. Money cannot erase those concerns and a compromise will be hard to find.

All said, I don't think TMT will be stopped - there is just too much state power behind them. But I just hope that when astronomers use any of the telescopes on top of Mauna Kea, they realize and appreciate that their presence on the mountain and their use of the telescopes is rightfully hurting at least some Hawaiians.

In the mean time, lets see how the drama over TMT construction unfolds.

If interested, here is the letter sent to the governor of Hawaii by the opponents of the telescope:


And here is the TMT response to some of the claims made by the protestors:
There have been inaccurate claims made about the project recently. The most common is that TMT is a danger to the Maunakea aquifer and drinking water on Hawaii Island. Comprehensive research by expert hydrologists confirms that TMT and the existing 13 telescopes pose no such danger. Furthermore, TMT is designed to be a zero waste discharge facility with all waste securely transported off the summit. There is also very little precipitation above 8,000 feet and the observatories are located well above that at the top of Maunakea at 14,000 feet. 
Download the TMT Environmental Impact Statement (pages 3–115) 
Another claim is that TMT did not meet the eight criteria for a conservation district use permit issued by the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources in 2011. The Third Circuit Court ruled that TMT did meet the criteria by being consistent with state laws governing the districts, not causing substantial adverse impact to existing natural resources, being compatible with the surrounding area, preserving the existing physical and environmental aspects, not subdividing or increasing the intensity of the land use and not being materially detrimental to the public health, safety and welfare. State regulations specifically identify astronomy as a permitted use in the Maunakea Science Reserve.
Stay tuned. 

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