Tuesday | July 25, 2017
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TMT groundbreaking disrupted

A groundbreaking ceremony for what will be one of the world’s most advanced observatories was disrupted Tuesday by Native Hawaiian protesters and others opposed to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.

More than 50 protesters blocked access near the mountain’s summit and greeted vans carrying dozens of attendees from five countries with chants and hula.

After waiting more than an hour, many of the attendees walked the rest of the distance to the dedication site, located just below the summit at 13,150 feet.

Sandra Dawson, TMT spokeswoman, said a blessing was held at the site but speeches were cancelled after protesters disrupted the event in progress.

“Several dozen people came and they chanted and sang and they talked and we listened and we heard them,” she said.

The event was cut short after it became clear there wasn’t going to be an end to the discussion, Dawson said.

Protesters said they oppose the $1.4 billion project because they see it as a desecration to a sacred mountain.

The TMT, developed by researchers from the United States, Canada, India, China and Japan, will be the ninth optical/infrared telescope on the mountain, prized by astronomers for its clear views of the heavens.

It will be more than 50 meters tall and about 40 percent larger than either of Keck Observatory’s twin 10-meter optical telescopes, currently the world’s largest, though it will also be nearly 10 times more powerful.

Mayor Billy Kenoi, who was scheduled to speak at the groundbreaking, attempted to defuse the situation at the roadblock, but demonstrators refused to back down. Kenoi assured there would be no arrests.

“Akua gave us all this to respect and love each other,” he said.

Said Kaliko Kanaele, of the Royal Order of Kamehameha: “We can’t keep on desecrating.”

Many of those protesting also brought up the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty, arguing the United States is illegally occupying the islands and that the University of Hawaii doesn’t have the right to lease a portion of the mountain to the observatory.

While defiant, the protest was mostly civil, though a couple demonstrators shouted at those trying to attend the groundbreaking.

Dawson said the protest was much bigger than expected though it won’t prevent the project from proceeding. Construction is expected to begin in spring.

“There’s no one there that is not used to some controversy, I’m sure,” she said, adding no one felt physically threatened.

The Office of Mauna Kea Management was initially considering closing Mauna Kea Access Road due to concerns over civil disobedience, said Stephanie Nagata, director.

But it chose to keep it open to maintain access for those not attending the event and for emergency purposes, she said.

Astronomers say the telescope, with a resolution 10 times better than the Hubble Telescope, will allow them to see deeper into the universe, capture images of distant galaxies with greater clarity, and solve more of the universe’s great mysteries.

And, just maybe, evidence of habitable planets and signs of life, the holy grail of astronomy, will be discovered.

“It’s mind blowing,” Luc Simard, a Canadian astronomer who oversees instrument development for the telescope, told the Tribune-Herald.

“I meet high school kids and I tell them, ‘You are the first generation of people that has a chance to answer this question — Is there life elsewhere in the universe? — and this is going to be the tool you are going to use to do it.’”

But the project has faced opposition from Native Hawaiians and environmentalists who use the acronym TMT for their own slogan — Too Many Telescopes.

Several attempts at legal challenges have delayed the project, which began as a concept about 10 years ago, but have yet to keep construction from moving forward.

A hearings officer ruled in favor of the project receiving a conservation district use permit in 2012 after a lengthy contested case hearing process. Petitioners, who lost an appeal of the decision, are attempting to take the issue to state Supreme Court.

Appeals have also been filed in Third Circuit Court regarding the project’s sublease with UH.

Kalani Flores, one of the petitioners, spoke during a Native Hawaiian prayer ceremony Tuesday morning at Pu‘u Huluhulu, across from the start of the Mauna Kea Access Road. More than 200 attended.

Flores said those gathered were standing for what’s “true and rightful.”

“Today is about having aloha for our aina and each other,” he said.

The protest was the first act of civil disobedience against the project. Members of the astronomy community also said it was the first they had seen on the mountain.

Several protesters said they didn’t think the telescope needed to be built in Hawaii.

“I understand how beneficial it could be,” said Kekai Naone of Hilo, who was holding a sign that said “Sacred Piko.” “But why here?”

The telescope, which will be operational in 2022 and capture its first image about two years later, is one of three next generation, large telescopes under development.

Two others will be located in Chile, and astronomers say they need a location in the northern hemisphere to capture the rest of the night sky. For them, Mauna Kea is the obvious choice.

Its completion will also keep Hawaii at the forefront of astronomy, supporters say.

Bob McClaren, associate director for UH’s Institute for Astronomy, said the telescope will improve astronomy to a greater degree than any other observatory has on the mountain.

“It’s a new generation of telescopes and a much bigger step than previously seen,” he said.

It will also will be the first to provide more than the $1 nominal annual rent.

The project will pay $300,000 annually for its first three years. That amount will increase gradually until it reaches $1.08 million after 11 years.

Eighty percent of that amount will go to the Office of Mauna Kea Management. The rest will go to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

TMT has also pledged $1 million a year to benefit science and technology education on Hawaii Island.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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