Gov. David Ige says he supports construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, as well as the redevelopment of existing telescope sites to replace older, obsolete equipment with newer instruments.
In a discussion with reporters and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s editorial board, Ige said he met with TMT project team members in Japan and discussed the Dec. 2 Hawaii Supreme Court order that stopped work on the project.
The court ordered a halt to construction, ruling that the state should have completed a contested case hearing on challenges to the project before issuing a conservation district use permit that allowed construction on the $1.4 billion project to begin.
“I have expressed my personal support for the project to them, and I have committed that the agencies will be going through that order and deciding what impact it is to the process,” Ige said. “They have asked that we let them know exactly what the next step will be as soon as possible, so we are committed to doing that.”
Ige said state agencies are reviewing the court ruling to determine what part of the state process needs to change. “And then we are waiting for guidance from the Circuit Court because they need to, I guess, interpret what the Supreme Court said, and we will make the changes we need to in the process and move forward,” Ige said.
Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou and spokeswoman for the group that sued to challenge the permit, said she has assumed Ige was a TMT supporter “because that’s how he’s behaving.”
“He didn’t need to say it to me,” Pisciotta said. She contends the state should not have allowed construction of the TMT project to begin until every legal challenge had been exhausted, because there was always a possibility the courts might reverse the decision by the Board of Land and Natural Resources to issue a permit for the project.
“They had a legal permit, but we have a right to challenge it, so they don’t actually have it until the court OKs it,” she said. “A perfect case in point is exactly how the case came out.
“Look at what the court said now,” Pisciotta continued. “You did the process wrong, they vacated the permit, there is no permit. So, that’s exactly why you don’t move ahead until the court has ruled, because if it’s a question of law, the court holds the authority on the law.”
Ige said he believes the state has not done a good job of managing Mauna Kea. “I have been talking with the University (of Hawaii) about fulfilling their promises. They have promised to remove obsolete telescopes for, I think, at least two decades, and they have not done a single thing, and so part of my 10-point plan is then for the university to live up to their commitments,” he said. “They promised to take out obsolete telescopes, so they should do it, and we’re going to make sure that they do.”
When asked if he supports plans to redevelop the 13 existing telescope sites on Mauna Kea, he said he did. “Yes, and there are different projects talking about refurbishing and extending, expanding capacity of existing sites,” he said.
Ige also said he was struck by the sheer volume of visitors to the summit, which he said is a problem.
“I can tell you when I went up to Mauna Kea, it was clear to me that commercial interest far exceeded cultural or even scientific interests,” Ige said. “There were so many people on the summit at sunset, I could not see it being sustainable.”
Ige cited tour vans and rental cars taking visitors to the summit.
“I think part of it is that we need to manage that resource better. We need to determine what is appropriate use,” Ige said. “We need to find better balance between science and culture, and we need to do a better job of managing that facility.”
Pisciotta agreed that the university does not have a specific plan for decommissioning telescopes. As for redevelopment of existing sites, Pisciotta said she and other activists who are concerned about the impacts of astronomy on the mountain suggested years ago that redevelopment of existing astronomy sites might be a possibility.
Their concept was to keep the structures housing obsolete telescopes while replacing and modernizing the equipment inside. “But that’s not what they’re talking about,” she said. “What they’re talking about is redoing the whole footprint.” She cited modernization plans for the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, a 3.6-meter optical and infrared telescope that became operational in 1979.
“That means to do that, they’re going to have to cut the pu‘u (hill) down” in what Pisciotta said would cause significant additional impact to the mountain.
The Canada-France-Hawaii telescope is currently planning a “Maunakea Spectroscopic Explorer” project, which is intended to transform the existing 3.6-meter optical telescope into a 10-meter class facility. The project is now being designed, and is scheduled to be operational in 2025, according to the observatory website.
Doug Simons, director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, said in a written statement that if the project is permitted and funded, the Maunakea Spectroscopic Explorer would involve replacing the telescope and dome while retaining the underlying building.
Contrary to Pisciotta’s take on the matter, Simons said in his statement: “Our facility on Maunakea will retain the same footprint as the existing CFHT building.”