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TMT receives notice to proceed, protests continue

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TMT Protest

Kahaka Patolo blows a conch shell at the Hawai'i State Capitol on June 20, 2019 to gain support for activists who oppose the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

At the highest point of the Pacific Ocean, approximately 14,000 feet above sea level, is a battle between science and what some consider sacred on an active volcano that hasn’t erupted since 4,000 years ago–it is clear that both sides will not budge.

There are 12 telescopes planted across the peak of Maunakea, and after over a decade of being in limbo, the last telescope proposed to be built has been confirmed, causing some hurt, frustration and confusion within the community. 

After Gov. David Ige announced the notice to proceed to the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo for the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope this summer, some Native Hawaiian activists are on the forefront waiting to protest the construction. Some even started a Hawai‘i community bail fund in case of arrest.

“Unfortunately I do think it’s likely,” Shelley Muneoka, who works at UH, said. “We didn’t want it to come to that, but I think for kea‘i, for protectors, it’s just very clear for the commitment to protect Maunakea. So if there’s a threat coming we’ll be there to defend.  

On June 28, a press conference was held for Native Hawaiians to voice their concerns and frustrations about TMT, the removal of four sacred structures and the possible use of a sound cannon in response to protests.

Many Native Hawaiian activists present challenged that it is their right to protest peacefully.

“How do we respond? How have we responded in the past?” Kealoha Pisciotta, Native Hawaiian activist, said. “Peacefully, nonviolently, in kapu aloha.”

Since the state Department of Land and Natural Resources issued notice of the permit after waiting for mitigation measures from the Conservation District Use Permit, TMT’s official construction date has yet to be announced.

“We know there are members of the community including the University of Hawai‘i who’ve passed this project,” UH President David Lassner said at the June 20 press conference. “We are truly sorry for some of the pain some of them feel and we fully respect their rights under the first amendment to protest in a respectful and lawful manner.

How did we get here?

There are currently 12 telescopes. Four are UH-owned, and the life span of a telescope can be up to 100 years, according to Interim Director of UH Mānoa’s Institute for Astronomy Robert McLaren. 

All telescopes on Maunakea are used for astronomical research. What is different about TMT is that it will be three times as wide with nine times more area than the largest existing visible-light telescope in the world, according to McLaren. It will deliver sharper and more detailed images than the other telescopes present. 

“The example that’s easiest to appreciate has to do with looking at planets by nearby stars,” McLaren said. “It’s really hard to see a small planet right by a great big bright star. It’s like looking for a fire fly behind a search light, you don’t see it. In this case the Thirty Meter Telescope has larger aperture which allows you to see that little planet right beside the great big star.”

In order to find an ideal spot, a worldwide site survey was conducted from 2005 to 2008. The sites included Maunakea, Chile and some parts of Mexico.

When Maunakea was selected in 2008, UH officials on Hawai‘i Island and O‘ahu held  week-long public scoping meetings.

A Sept. 18, 2008 letter to the Office of Environmental Quality Control by former UH President David McClain stated:

“The project consists of the construction and the operation of an optical/infrared telescope on an estimated 4 acres of land within the 525-acre Astronomy Precinct of the Science Reserve. The Telescope being proposed has a primary mirror 30 meters in diameter, and would be the most technologically advanced ground-based telescope in the world. The University of Hawai‘i has determined that the project will likely have significant environmental impacts and has therefore prepared an Environmental Impact Statement Preparation Notice (EISPN) / Environmental Assessment (EA).”

During the decision-making process, advocates testified against the use of Maunakea for TMT. 

In 2010, the Maunakea Management Board approved the TMT project, which was met with a rise in indigenous activism.

In March 2015, the Department of Land and Natural Resources issued the notice to proceed. Within the same year, hundreds of Native Hawaiian activists blocked road access to the proposed TMT site, leading to 31 arrests. 

Since then, in a long and slow process, state officials have acquired the permit to begin construction on Maunakea.

What next?

Five of the 12 telescopes are planned to be decommissioned during TMT’s construction, with two telescopes already inoperable. 

While some in the community are awaiting construction, others are disheartened and divided in cultural, spiritual and historical views. Some are concerned with how the state will handle the protestors when the time comes. 

“It’s going to be bigger,” Billy Freitas, practitioner of uhau humu pohaku (stone wall masonry),  said. “They’re coming with a force that is nothing like 2015.”