One year after protesters stopped the Thirty Meter Telescope for a second time, a top official with the TMT organization said Wednesday that the project’s commitment to Hawaii remains as strong as ever but that construction will be delayed at least through the winter and maybe longer.
Gordon Squires, TMT vice president of external relations, said the coronavirus pandemic is helping to complicate the logistics of constructing the $2.4 billion cutting-edge telescope expected to be one of the most powerful astronomical instruments in the world.
In optimal times, it takes a minimum of three months to gear up for the start of construction, he said. But these are not optimal times, and bringing in equipment and people from the mainland presents challenges that could double the preparation time, he said.
Squires said in all likelihood construction couldn’t begin until after winter at the earliest but that depends on the pandemic and other factors.
Among those factors are the largely Native Hawaiian opposition and how any demonstrations might be handled by government officials. More than a dozen candidates are hoping to unseat Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim, who, along with Gov. David Ige, has taken a cautious and nonaggressive approach to dealing with the protest.
Meanwhile, the kia‘i or “protectors” of the mountain continue to vow that they will block any attempt to restart construction.
Mauna Kea Hui leader Kealoha Pisciotta said word of TMT’s delay was both good news and “not good news.”
“They’re choosing to delay but not choosing to do what’s right,” she said.
Native Hawaiians will continue to fight what she described as “a classic form of racism” by a group that has failed to obtain the clear and informed consent of the indigenous people who hold the mountain sacred, Pisciotta said.
Construction was blocked for the first time in 2015, when scores of protesters prevented work vehicles from traveling up the access road and the state Supreme Court later invalidated the project’s work permit.
The latest attempt to start construction was stopped July 15 when hundreds, and later thousands, of mostly Hawaiian protesters, many of whom believe the mountain is sacred, blocked Mauna Kea Access Road.
The biggest drama that day occurred when eight activists chained themselves to a cattle guard on the access road early in the morning and were later told they were under arrest but were never taken into custody.
Authorities did carry out their threat of arrest a few days later, taking into custody and charging 38 kupuna protesters who were sitting in the middle of the access road.
It was all for naught, however. No construction vehicles passed by the roadblock and the protest continued, while images of the arrested kupuna galvanized support for the cause across the state.
By late March, the protest camp was dismantled by the kia‘i in response to health concerns connected to the COVID-19 pandemic. Only a few kia‘i remain in the area to watch the road, but construction has remained at a standstill.
Asked on Wednesday whether TMT was still committed to Mauna Kea, Squires offered “a resounding yes.”
“We have a bright future ahead, and our commitment is strong,” he said.
Squires said TMT was even considering beefing up personnel at its Hilo office and renovating its building in a move that might contribute some to an economy on Hawaii island that is ailing under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, manufacturing of the telescope’s parts continues all over the world. Squires said he was pleased to learn recently that 80% of the project’s subsystems are either in final design phase, pre-design phase or under construction.
Elsewhere, news reports from the Canary Islands indicate that TMT has obtained the green light to build the telescope at its backup site on the island of La Palma. Squires confirmed those reports, but said the TMT International Observatory board remains committed to Hawaii.
Later this month, the TMT is scheduled to be discussed by the board of regents of the University of California, one of the partners of the astronomy project, along with Caltech and science institutions from China, India, Japan and Canada.
For months groups of Polynesian and other indigenous students have been campaigning to persuade the UC to divest from the TMT, arguing the land is sacred to Native Hawaiians and that it is unethical for the university to support the project.
It’s an argument that may have additional resonance with the regents in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and other campaigns to stamp out systematic racism in America.
“To be clear, to build the TMT, the UC BOR, Caltech and other TMT Partners will have to commit violence against the Indigenous Peoples of Hawai‘i and their supporters. This is not change, it is the continuation of the colonial and racist paradigm, combined with heavy-handedness of an oppressor,” Kealoha wrote in her testimony to the board.
But Samuel Wilder King II, executive director of the pro-TMT group Imua TMT, is urging its members to give voice to the other side.
In his testimony, King, a Native Hawaiian, said there is no rational argument against building TMT on Mauna Kea:
“You are not colonizers. Colonizers extracted resources from their colonies. TMT brings resources and the only impact it will leave is education for our children and a greater understanding of humanity’s place in the universe. Please stop wringing your hands as if you have done something bad. You are the good guys. You have done nothing wrong.”