Hawai’i Gives Go-Ahead to Thirty Meter Telescope

Hawai’i Gives Go-Ahead to Thirty Meter Telescope


After protests and a judge's ruling brought the colossal Thirty Meter Telescope project to a halt, a state panel has cleared the way for its construction atop Mauna Kea to proceed.

On September 29th, after five months of public hearings that involved 71 witness testimonies and a review of more than 800 submitted documents, the Board of Land and Natural Resources for the state of Hawai'i announced its decision to allow the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea to resume.

Aerial view of Thirty Meter Telescope

This artist's conception shows an aerial view of the Thirty Meter Telescope on top of Mauna Kea.

An earlier BLNR ruling had also approved the $1.4 billion project, but it was a controversial decision and construction ground to a halt in 2015 after a string of protests blocked access to the mountain's summit. Then last December, Third Circuit Court judge Greg Nakamura ruled that TMT’s sublease agreement with the University of Hawai'i at Hilo for the site was invalid because the BLNR should have held a separate hearing regarding the lease.

Yesterday's BNLR announcement, made after a 5-to-2 vote by its members, means that construction of the TMT can proceed. However, that's unlikely because opponents plan to appeal the decision to the Hawai'i Supreme Court. Pending that appeal, no protests on the mountain have materialized yet. However, the Hawai'i Unity & Liberation Institute declared, "As daunting of a task it might be to stop construction of the TMT, we have once again been left with no choice but to resist and take matters back into our own hands."

TMT protest on April 2, 2015

Arrested protesters chant before police remove them from the summit of Mauna Kea on April 2, 2015.
Occupy Hawaii

Indigenous Hawaiians consider Mauna Kea sacred, and it has long been the site of religious ceremonies and burials. Its slopes are dotted with shrines, offering altars, and hidden burial grounds. Yet the summit, 13,802 feet (4,207 meters) high, has long been prized by astronomers for its pristine, nearly cloud-free access to the night sky.

Thanks to a series of agreements, stretching back to 1968, the state has allowed the University of Hawai'i to develop and manage observatories on a 65-acre "science reserve" at the summit. The latest version of the management plan, from 2009, specifies terms for the 13 facilities now in place.

But TMT is not just another telescope. Its dome will be 218 feet (66 m) across and 180 feet (55 m) high. Ordinarily, that would be easily visible from much of the Big Island. However, explains Tom Geballe (Gemini Observatory), "The TMT site is on a lava plain several hundred feet of elevation below the summit and will be visible from very few locations on the island. It will not even be visible from the summit itself (unlike many of the other telescopes)."

Aside from its sheer size, opponents argued that construction would disturb sacred sites and that, once completed, its day-to-day operation might contaminate the summit.

The Ruling's Caveats

In allowing the construction of TMT to move forward, the state board's 345-page report concluded that the TMT project satisfied eight key criteria covering appropriate land use, conservation, and environmental concerns. As the ruling pointedly notes in its preface, "The TMT will not pollute groundwater, will not damage any historic sites, will not harm rare plants or animals, will not release toxic materials, and will not otherwise harm the environment. It will not significantly change the appearance of the summit of Mauna Kea from populated areas on Hawai‘i Island."

Speaking to reporters during the announcement, BNLR chairperson Suzanne Case addressed opponents' contention that the TMT would infringe on religious rights. "Under the federal and state constitutions," she stated, "a group's religious beliefs cannot be given veto power over the use of public land."

However, after carefully weighing the many objections raised during the public hearings, the board also imposed 43 special conditions. Among them:

  • Three existing telescopes will be decommissioned and removed from the summit, with no other telescopes replacing them. Although the report doesn't say so specifically, plans are already well under way to remove the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory and a domed 0.7-m teaching telescope called Hoku Kea. The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope is a rumored third candidate.
  • Two more existing facilities, including the Very Long Baseline Array antenna, must be removed by the end of 2033.
  • All project employees must receive mandatory cultural and natural-resources training.
  • TMT must adopt a "Zero Waste Management" policy, trucking all waste products off the summit.
  • The project must contribute $1 million annually, in addition to the $2½ million it has provided each year since 2014, to community projects on the Big Island.

Some of these requirements, especially the removal of existing telescopes, closely follow a 10-point "Path Forward" request that Governor David Ige made to the University of Hawai'i in May 2015.

A statement by the University of Hawai'i about the BNLR decision notes, in part, "The university first applied for this permit seven years ago, and we believe this decision and the underlying vote represent a fitting and fair reflection of an issue that has divided many in the community who care deeply about Maunakea."

Meanwhile, the possibility remains that TMT will not be built in Hawai'i at all. Project officials had looked at other potential sites, both north and south of the equator, and had homed in on La Palma in the Canary Islands as a suitable location. However, for now Mauna Kea remains the most desirable site. That could change pending opponent's challenges before the state's Supreme Court.