Showdown on Thirty Meter Telescope

By Colin M. Stewart
Hawaii Tribune Herald
Dozens of supporters, and an even larger cadre of opponents, lined the streets outside and the hallways inside the Hawaii County Building in Hilo on Tuesday morning in anticipation of the final hearing for a construction permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope before the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.
Showdown on Thirty Meter Telescope

HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Protesters gather outside of the Hawaii County building against the building Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea Tuesday morning.

Dozens of supporters, and an even larger cadre of opponents, lined the streets outside and the hallways inside the Hawaii County Building in Hilo on Tuesday morning in anticipation of the final hearing for a construction permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope before the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.

Beating on drums, waving signs, chanting, blowing conch shells and just talking story, they said they came to lend their kokua near the end of a long and arduous process that has pitted various interests against each other for years as they debated the future of Hawaii Island’s astronomy industry — as well as its skyline. At issue is the proposal for the $1.3 billion, 10-year construction of the TMT near the summit of Mauna Kea.

As BLNR members prepared to get the testimony under way at 11 a.m., a large contingent of Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners made their way into the council chambers, wearing traditional Hawaiian clothing and maile, and chanting in unison, some holding their hands aloft in a triangle shape, invoking a symbol of the dominant feature at the center of Hawaii Island: Mauna Kea.

Abel Simeona Lui, a well-known Hawaiian activist who was recently evicted from property at Kawa Bay that he and others claimed to be safeguarding for future generations of Native Hawaiians, entered the room bearing a video camera, which he proceeded to wave in front of BLNR board members and attendees of the hearing, saying that he was helping to reveal “the truth” about the proceedings to other Hawaii Island residents. After repeated requests for him to be seated, Lui finally acquiesced, but continued to pop up from time to time during the hearing to lecture or photograph the board.

Tuesday’s meeting was set to hear oral arguments from petitioners on the TMT construction permit, and therefore was not an opportunity for public comment. But supporters and opponents of the project made their voices heard in other ways, by simply being there in overwhelming numbers, filling all the chairs, lining up along the walls, and spilling out into the hallway in the county building. They also provided feedback, providing applause, shouts of encouragement, and other interjections as the testimony played out.

Each of the six petitioners, as well as a representative for the University of Hawaii, which made the application to build the telescope, were given 30 minutes apiece to summarize their positions.

First to take the microphone was attorney Tim Lui-Kwan, representing UH. He maintained the importance of the scientific undertaking, calling the TMT “not just another telescope.”

“It will be 10 times more powerful, and far more advanced, than the largest telescopes in operation today, allowing us to see farther and with more detail than any others that are currently in operation,” he said. “They will allow us to seek the answers to the questions of the nature, origin and composition of the universe.”

He added that the selection of Mauna Kea for the construction came after considering six possible locations around the world, but Mauna Kea was deemed the best because of its high altitude and relative clarity.

Lui-Kwan said the the current investment in the telescopes at Mauna Kea, estimated at $1 billion, would double, and that would have a huge impact on the economy of the island, filtering down to education and other important sectors.

One statement that drew plenty of criticism from the petitioners for the rest of the day involved his assertion that the petitioners had failed to prove they were direct descendants of Native Hawaiians, thereby weakening their claims to be representing Native Hawaiian cultural traditions in opposing the construction.

“None of them submitted evidence demonstrating their descent from Hawaiians prior to 1778,” he said. “… Their argument is pointless, as the hearing officer concluded correctly.”

This drew a few hushed comments from the crowd, such as “How dare you!” and “shameless.”

Pua Case explained to BLNR board members that her family, including her daughters, continue to observe the Hawaiian cultural practices centered around Mauna Kea that have been passed down for hundreds of years.

“One more is too much,” she said of constructing another telescope. “It’s too big. The mauna is not just sacred, it’s connected, to all parts of the world. … To connect 18 stories to the top of the mauna, you gotta go down deep, and that hurts me.”

Deborah J. Ward, a retired faculty member of the UH Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, presented herself in opposition of the TMT plan on a number of grounds, including what she called the proposed “irrevocable” impact to the natural state of the mountain. Since the 1970s, she said, she has witnessed the degradation of the environment at the summit of Mauna Kea.

“The cumulative impact of intensified industrial land use at the summit has impacted my recreational enjoyment and spiritual practice,” she said. “The cumulative impact of the destruction of habitat, widespread waste accumulation, obstruction of viewplane, constant sound, alteration of the geology, and negative impact to the cultural practice of my colleagues is a source of personal grief.”

Perhaps the most emotional testimony came from Mauna Kea Anaina Hou President Kealoha Pisciotta, who wept as she delivered the final presentation from a petitioner.

“In conclusion, when we began standing for Mauna Kea all those years ago, the kupunas told us that we must make sure to tell you all of the significance, because our kupunas believe that if you knew better, you would do better, and they certainly are right,” she said. “We all know our kupunas who have passed told us we must continue to stand in aloha and we do that here today. We extend our aloha to all of you. We know this is a hard decision and we pray that you will make the one we wish to hear. … The world is calling out and saying ‘No more.’ The earth is demanding that we stand, and now is the time.”

BLNR members did not deliberate following the testimony, but said they would take under advisement requests from both sides of the debate to issue a ruling as soon as possible.

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