Hawaii’s land board on Thursday granted a construction permit for a giant telescope on a mountain that Native Hawaiians consider sacred, a project that has divided the state.
The $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) has pitted people who say the instrument will provide educational and economic opportunities against those who say it will desecrate the state’s tallest mountain, called Mauna Kea.
Plans for what would be one of the world’s largest telescopes date to 2009, when scientists selected Mauna Kea after a five-year around-the-world campaign to find the ideal site for what telescope officials say “will likely revolutionize our understanding of the universe.”
The project won a series of approvals from Hawaii, including a permit to build on conservation land in 2011. Protesters blocked attempts to start construction. Then in 2015, the state Supreme Court invalidated the permit and ordered the project to undergo the process all over again.
Pursuing the telescope has taken more than 10 years, Douglas Ing, an attorney representing the telescope project, told the land board during final arguments on Sept. 20. “Enormous resources” were spent and community meetings were held, he said.
“It wanted to become part of this community,” Ing said. “It learned the values of this community.”
‘You failed up there’
Paul Neves, a master hula teacher and opponent, said the non-profit building the telescope is made up of outsiders and that there has been too much development on Mauna Kea, where there are 13 telescopes.
“You failed up there,” he told the board. “Telescope after telescope after telescope, you failed.”
Protests disrupted a groundbreaking in 2014 and intensified after that. Construction stopped in 2015 after 31 demonstrators were arrested for blocking the work.
A second attempt to restart construction a few months later ended with more arrests and crews retreating when they encountered large boulders in the road.
‘We will determine what places are sacred and how they should be protected.’
– Kahookahi Kanuha, TMT opponent
Mehana Kihoi said being arrested while in prayer on the mountain was one of the most traumatic experiences of her life. She started going there to help heal from domestic violence, Kihoi told the land board.
“For years, I carried grief and pain … until I went to the mauna,” she said, using the Hawaiian word for mountain.
Some say fighting the telescope has awakened a new generation of Hawaiian activism.