Hawaii Telescope Project, Long Disputed, Approaches Construction

The governor of Hawaii, David Ige, is expected to announce Wednesday that construction will soon begin on a giant telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea, the volcano that looms over the Big Island of Hawaii.

The Thirty Meter Telescope would be the largest telescope ever contemplated in the Northern Hemisphere, and one of the most expensive: According to knowledgeable, unaffiliated astronomers, its costs could reach $2 billion.

But the project has been plagued with controversy and a series of legal and illegal obstacles. Activists have opposed it, saying that decades of telescope-building on Mauna Kea have polluted the mountain. In 2014, protesters disrupted a groundbreaking ceremony and blocked construction vehicles from mountain roads.

Mauna Kea is considered “ceded land” that once belonged to the Hawaiian kingdom and is now held in trust for native Hawaiians. Some of them have contended that the construction of telescopes on the mountain’s summit — 13 so far — has interfered with cultural and religious practices. For others, the telescope project has become a symbol of Western colonization.

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A poll last year by The Honolulu Star-Advertiser found that 72 percent of native Hawaiians supported the telescope, and only 15 percent opposed it. The general support, they say, is befitting the heritage of a people who traditionally navigated the Pacific by the winds, tides and stars. Many say they hope the telescope will bring technological and economic development to the island.

The telescope would be built by an international collaboration called the TMT International Observatory, led by the University of California and the California Institute of Technology, but also including Japan, China, India and Canada.

This week a coalition of activists led by Kealoha Pisciotta filed a legal challenge in the Third Circuit Court of Hawaii, seeking an injunction against the telescope construction. The TMT International Observatory, the activists said, had failed to post a security bond that is required under a 1977 plan that governs the management of the mountain. The bond, in the amount of the full cost of the project, would cover the cost of restoring the site to its natural state once the telescope has finished its mission.

“By failing to post the bond, they have laid all financial liability on the People of Hawai’i, in the event the TMT doesn’t get full funding,” Ms. Pisciotta said in an email. “And this is especially important because they don’t have full funding now.”

It is only the latest chapter in a long series of protests and legal skirmishes. In December 2015, the state’s Supreme Court invalidated a previous construction permit on the grounds that the project’s opponents had been deprived of due process, because a state board had granted the permit before the opponents could be heard in a so-called contested case hearing.

At the time, the TMT astronomers said they would build their telescope in the Canary Islands if denied in Hawaii, and set a deadline of April of 2019 to proceed. Last October, the Hawaiian Supreme Court restored the telescope’s building permit. Earlier this summer, Governor Ige announced that a “notice to proceed” had been issued, allowing construction. As part of the deal, five telescopes currently operating on Mauna Kea will be shut down and their sites restored to original condition.

“We are all stewards of Mauna Kea,” Governor Ige said at a news conference in June. He pledged to respect the rights and cultural traditions of the Hawaiian people, including the freedom to speak out against the telescope.

He asked that further debate take place away from the mountain, where steep roads and limited water, oxygen and medical services pose a safety risk.

“This decision of the Hawaiian Supreme Court is the law of the land, and it should be respected,” he said.

Dennis Overbye joined The Times in 1998, and has been a reporter since 2001. He has written two books: “Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Story of the Scientific Search for the Secret of the Universe” and “Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance.” @overbye

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