Q&A: The ongoing struggle to build a giant Hawaii telescope
HONOLULU (AP) — For months, protesters have held up construction of a $1.4 billion telescope atop a mountain on the Big Island of Hawaii. The state imposed emergency rules making it challenging for opponents to continue their actions, which they say are meant to prevent the desecration of land held sacred by many Native Hawaiians. Officials restricted nighttime access to Mauna Kea, threatened hefty fines against a company that provided portable toilets for protesters camping on the mountain and banned camping gear on the mountain. Here are questions and answers in the ongoing struggle to build the Thirty Meter Telescope.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Telescope construction began in March near the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island after seven years of environmental studies, public hearings and court proceedings. Construction halted in April after 31 protesters were arrested for blocking construction. A second attempt to restart construction on June 24 ended with the arrests of 12 protesters and construction crews in vehicles retreating before reaching the site when they encountered large boulders in the road.
HOW ARE PROTESTERS BLOCKING CONSTRUCTION?
Protesters maintained an around-the-clock presence on the mountain in case crews returned. They were sleeping in vehicles or under a large tent near the Mauna Kea visitor’s center. When the University of Hawaii, which manages stewardship of the mountain, closed bathrooms for safety and capacity reasons, protesters arranged for portable toilets to be trucked over. But the toilets were removed after the state threatened hefty fines against the company that provided them.
WHAT HAS THE STATE DONE TO FACILITATE CONSTRUCTION?
The state’s land board last week voted to approve an emergency rule restricting access to the mountain. However, Gov. David Ige’s office says the rule is not aimed at facilitating construction but to allow for safe access by all lawful users and to restore public safety.
WHAT IS THE EMERGENCY RULE?
Even though camping was already prohibited on Mauna Kea, the state took more targeted aim with rules that specifically prevent being within a mile of the mountain’s access road during certain nighttime hours, unless in a moving vehicle. The rule also bans certain camping-related gear: sleeping bags, tents, camping stoves and propane burners.
WHEN WILL THE RULE BE IN EFFECT?
It’s effective Tuesday, when Ige signed it. Emergency rules are in place for 120 days.
HOW WILL PROTEST EFFORTS CONTINUE?
Protest leaders say they’re having discussions about how to continue guarding the mountain. “My personal goal is that we can still be able to do what we need to do within the confines of the new rules,” Lanakila Mangauil said. Some ideas, he said, include watching from beyond the one-mile restricted zone, or making use of protesters who live near where the construction vehicles are kept. If there is any indication construction vehicles are heading to the mountain, there will be an alert system for protesters to mobilize, he said.
Another idea is to use the four-month period as a break. “Perhaps we could take advantage of this to take a little rest,” Mangauil said. “Let the area take a rest.”
So far, the nonprofit company building the telescope has given advance notice of efforts to restart construction. Mangauil said he’s not worried the company will use the emergency rule to sneak up the mountain at night.
WHEN WILL CONSTRUCTION RESUME?
A restart date hasn’t been determined, the telescope company said.
HOW HAS THE DELAY AFFECTED THE PROJECT?
“Once construction starts, it will be an eight- to 10-year timeline to full operation,” Michael Bolte, a member of the TMT International Observatory Board, said in an email. “A construction delay of a few months will not significantly affect the overall project time.”
Off-site work has been ongoing at partner institutions in Canada, China, Japan, India and other parts of the United States, Bolte said.
WILL THE TELESCOPE EVER GET BUILT?
“Yes,” Bolte wrote. “TMT has worked with the community and government agencies to create a comprehensive plan that addresses environmental sensitivities, respect for Native Hawaiian culture and spirituality, forward-looking educational opportunities and new, advanced career options for youth.”
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE EMERGENCY RULE EXPIRES?
While the rule is in effect, there will be more discussions “to determine the best path forward,” Ige’s office said. “We cannot speculate about what will happen after that period.”
Associated Press Writer Cathy Bussewitz contributed to this report.