Controversial Thirty Meter Telescope gets go-ahead to build in Hawaii

Oct 2, 2017

By Alexandra Witze

Hawaii’s board of land and natural resources granted a fresh construction permit to the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on 28 September, reviving the fortunes of the US$1.4-billion observatory — at least temporarily.

The permit moves the international project closer towards restarting construction near the summit of the Hawaiian mountain of Mauna Kea. Some Native Hawaiians oppose the TMT, saying that its construction would further violate a sacred mountain that is already home to multiple telescopes.

The board’s decision effectively puts the TMT project back where it was before protestors halted the telescope’s construction in April 2015, just days after it had begun, by blocking the road up Mauna Kea. That December, following months of challenges, Hawaii’s supreme court invalidated the telescope’s first construction permit. The court ruled that the state land board had not followed appropriate procedures because it had approved the first permit, in 2011, before it held a set of public hearings on the case. 

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3 comments on “Controversial Thirty Meter Telescope gets go-ahead to build in Hawaii

  • Some Native Hawaiians oppose the TMT, saying that its construction would further violate a sacred mountain that is already home to multiple telescopes.

    Ah! Another “sacred mountain” – worshipped by those stuck without a scientific view of awesome nature!

    Its a volcano! Take some care of the native wildlife, and avoid destroying the surrounding habitats when construction work is underway. Big changes in landscapes are nothing new on actively volcanic islands.
    Perhaps a shift of focus on to protecting habitats generally and restricting the accidental importation of invasive species, would be a more constructive approach to dealing with real, rather than imaginary problems!



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  • Alan

    Perhaps a shift of focus on to protecting habitats generally and restricting the accidental importation of invasive species, would be a more constructive approach to dealing with real, rather than imaginary problems!

    Hawaiian native Americans are fighting to protect their land and culture. This is not an imaginary problem. We (US) have a despicable, nasty history here of dealing with our indigenous people and I’m certain that we don’t even know the worst of it due to historical whitewashing and historical revisionism.

    Those of us who live in the world of science, support science and see the world through the framework of science can surely find it in us to support the interests of the indigenous people everywhere. Aren’t they part of our natural fauna too? Don’t they deserve protection just like any endangered species that we rally for?

    It goes without saying that I’m all for the construction of that telescope. If it’s as good as the article says it is then we’ll have some wonderful results. There are serious environmental concerns that are acknowledged by the pro-telescope side of this. It also goes without saying that the native Americans, when in the way of progress here get steamrolled over and are victims of an incomplete genocide that no amount of reparation could fix.

    A link was provided for another article related to this issue:

    https://www.nature.com/news/the-mountain-top-battle-over-the-thirty-meter-telescope-1.18446

    Here is some description of the negotiating process on this problem:

    Relations between astronomers and Native Hawaiians deteriorated so much that the late Senator Daniel Inouye, a legendary figure in Hawaiian politics, had to intervene. He forced nine people from each side, including McLaren as the institute’s associate director, to sit down and talk out their differences. “It was kind of awkward at first, but it actually worked,” McLaren says. “We could discuss why we thought certain things and why they thought certain things, and what we were going to do about it. But it took time.” Those 1999 talks helped to get a comprehensive plan for the mountain approved. And some of the Native Hawaiians on the panel formed a cultural advisory council that provides input into the management of Mauna Kea. It was a rare example of people with different interests managing to have a productive dialogue about the mountain’s future, McLaren says.

    Despite all the conversations, however, people were uncomfortable with the concept of future development, so the final master plan failed to lay out a clear sense of whether and how big telescopes could be built on the mountain. “We weren’t able to achieve that,” says McLaren. “That was a bit disappointing.” In 2006, in the wake of the master-plan controversy, associated lawsuits and strong opposition, NASA pulled funding for a project that would have added up to six ‘outrigger’ telescopes to the twin 10-metre Keck telescopes, currently the largest atop Mauna Kea.

    Even though the master plan did not go as far as McLaren had wanted, he says that it has helped to shape the current project. When the TMT team decided in 2009 to build on Mauna Kea, it worked within the guidelines of the plan to minimize the telescope’s impact on the mountain. Physically, the dome is slated to sit about 150 metres below the summit ridge, making it less prominent. Project officials consulted with a number of Native Hawaiian groups, including the Mauna Kea cultural advisory council, and made plans to limit traffic to the summit and have local voices deeply involved in all stages of construction. The TMT is also the first Mauna Kea telescope with more than a token rent; it will pay $1 million a year for its space, with most of that flowing directly to mountain stewardship.

    I don’t have a religious or spiritual bone in my body, but the day I stood on top of Machu Picchu with the clouds swirling around my head and the scenery there something straight out of a sci fi fantasyland, I felt a complete understanding of the spiritual mindset. Not saying I saw God. Nope, nothing like that. I felt complete sympathy with the descendants of the Inca who fought to keep invaders away from that place. It’s a sacred place and although I’ve never been to Mauna Kea (I’d actually love to see the Keck Telescope there) I have a feeling that I’d I’d end up spending time with the native Hawaiians on the way down the mountain too.

    I’m satisfied to read that there was a productive negotiation process and I hope that telescope is built and I hope that the Hawaiians benefit greatly from it. The last thing we need these days is for the science crowd to come off as a bunch of socially detached calculator brain nerds with hearts of cold surgical steel.

    We CAN have our cake and eat it too.



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  • LaurieB #2
    Oct 3, 2017 at 9:52 am

    I’m satisfied to read that there was a productive negotiation process and I hope that telescope is built and I hope that the Hawaiians benefit greatly from it.

    The astronomers themselves are probably going to fit harmoniously into the landscape!

    The last thing they would want, is noise, vibration, smoke, dust, or air pollution of any sort affecting their equipment!

    It is the construction process which is potentially most disruptive, – and US construction crews are not noted for environmental sensitivity!

    It that is sorted out sensibly and amicably with the native locals, it could run smoothly.



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