Saturday, July 29, 2017

Another twist in the case of telescopes on top of Mauna Kea

by Salman Hameed

I have followed the controversy over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on top of Mauna Kea. In December 2015, the Hawaiian Supreme Court rescinded the construction permit for the telescope citing that the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) that authorized the permit had not followed full procedure. This, of course, was after massive protests on the mountain in mid-2015, that blocked vehicles from going to the construction site.

However, 44 days of testimony, a judge has now recommended the construction of TMT on Mauna Kea:
A year and a half after the Hawaiian Supreme Court revoked the telescope’s building permit, saying that the state Board of Land and Natural Resources had cut corners in the application process, a judge recommended on Wednesday that the board issue a new permit. 
The telescope’s opponents, a coalition of native Hawaiians and environmentalists, say that the proliferation of observatories on Mauna Kea has despoiled a sacred mountain and interfered with native Hawaiian cultural practices that are protected by state law.
The judge’s recommendation included the condition that the telescope’s workers and astronomers undergo “mandatory cultural and natural resources training.” 
The telescope’s backers, a consortium that includes the University of California, California Institute of Technology, India, China and Canada, called the decision an important milestone, but cautioned that it was only one in a series of bureaucratic and political hurdles to overcome.
You can read the full 305 page document here.

That said, this is the beginning of a new phase of challenges. It is quite likely that BLNR will accept the recommendation. However, the judgement is then probably going to get challenged again in the Hawaiian Supreme Court. On the flip side, the TMT consortium had earlier indicated that they were thinking of moving the TMT to the Spanish Canary Islands. That is still their backup location. I really have no idea how things will end up on Mauna Kea. I was really surprised at the intensity of the protests in 2015 and that those protests were successful in pushing back against the consortium.

While I understand the importance of Mauna Kea to astronomy, I do think that it would be better to have TMT on the Canary Islands. It is not about the telescopes, but the long history of Hawaii-US relations. This is a compromise, I hope astronomers are willing to make. 

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