HILO — Construction on the $1.3 billion Thirty Meter Telescope could begin atop Mauna Kea within a year, project managers said this weekend, following Friday’s approval of a permit for the plans by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.
“Of course, this is Hawaii, so I wouldn’t say it will be smooth sailing ahead for sure, but it should be clearer,” said Sandra Dawson, the TMT manager of Hawaii community affairs.
There is still much to be done before construction can get under way, she said, including obtaining a sublease on the property from UH, and then beginning geotechnical studies at the site this summer.
“We’ll be letting contracts on the studies soon, and then there are county permits, DLNR approvals, and meeting with the unions. We are commited to hiring union workers. So, there’s a lot of work if we’re going to start in a year. I’ve got 168 line items of things that have to be done.”
Dawson said the plan by partner universities, including the University of Hawaii, to build the world’s largest optical telescope has been under intense scrutiny from virtually the moment Mauna Kea was selected as a possible site. But, as Friday’s decision showed, any concerns about the project have already been addressed and laid to rest.
“We went through a contested case hearing, we received a favorable hearing officer’s report, there was a favorable vote, and there hasn’t been any new information or charges, so I don’t see any new issues coming up that would merit reviewing,” she said. “We’ve been through this now, and I think all the questions have been answered.”
KTA Superstores CEO Barry Taniguchi, who served on the Mauna Kea Management Board and helped to shepherd the telescope project, said Sunday that the land board’s decision shows that groundbreaking scientific research can be done in Hawaii.
“I’m very pleased at the decision (by the land board). This project was by far the best project put together, because it considers the environment, the culture, and everything else. We spent a long time doing this, and it shows,” he said.
“You know, when this project came along, there was a strong sentiment, a sense in the scientific community, that there’s no sense in looking at Hawaii, you’re never going to get it. The naysayers will shoot it down. The scientific community didn’t feel it was really worth the effort. … But Dr. Henry Yang (of the University of California and TMT Board chairman), he said ‘If Hawaii is the best place for the science, then we should do it in Hawaii.’”
The telescope — which will feature nine times the field of view of other similar telescopes, and about three times the resolution — calls for a facility that is considerably larger than those that house the nine optical telescopes currently on the mountain. As such, it raised plenty of concerns among environmentalists and Hawaiian cultural practitioners. But ultimately, Taniguchi said, the project has done an admirable job of taking such concerns into consideration.
“I know native Hawaiians have been recently very strong about cultural resurgence, and I think this project looked at that and realized that, and pretty much said, ‘If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right.’ … From the very beginning, the board did the right things. They went into the negative camp, the people against it, and they tried to talk story with them. … I give them credit for doing that, for trying to establish communication,” he said.
Dawson agreed, saying that the TMT board hasn’t just said it would be a good neighbor, it’s proven it.
“The chair of our board made tens of trips out here, and I know I’ve had over 400 meetings — talk story sessions and public meetings — since I’ve been here. Much more than we were required to do. We wanted people to get to know us, to know that we mean what we say about jumping in and being a part of the community,” she said.
To that end, she added, the board has made long-term commitments, like promising to provide up to $1 million a year for education on the Big Island as long as the telescope is in operation, as well as participating in education programs such as the Vexx robotics tournaments, Journey Through the Universe, and supporting internships.
Opponents of the telescope plans said they were disappointed by Friday’s decision, but vowed to continue to protect Hawaii’s sacred locations from development.
“The BLNR was not as strong as we had hoped they would be,” reads a Friday evening posting on the Protect Mauna Kea page on Facebook. “This is very sad news for all today. … We must not be disheartened by this decision and must not lose hope — we must keep raising the standard of aloha for our aina, the poe and the world. … We must also remember that when we began over 10 years ago, we were facing off with NASA — a giant entity. The TMT is no different, but what is more important to remember is that we did prevail. The UH and others have not been able to build any telescopes for over 10 years, so we must remember and not forget.”
Another posting on the same page by Pua Case, who was one of the petitioners in the contested case for the construcion permit, also called for opponents of the telescope project to remain united.
“Mahalo to all who are posting in support of the mauna, our sacred and beloved Mauna A Wakea,” reads a posting on the Protect Mauna Kea Facebook page written by Pua Case, one of the petitioners in the contested case for the TMT construction permit. “Let us move forward as we have been directed to by the ancient ones … in love and light for the mountain and extend our highest and strongest heartfelt connection to her now more than ever.
“Pono will prevail my friends, my relations. We will need you to stand with us for the mountain. We are all in this together. It is a significant time to be on this Earth to be a steward, a warrior, a protector in total consciousness. Stand strong as a mountain and fuel your fire with the light of our beloved Hawaii from the mountain to the sea.”
Calls seeking additional comments from opponents of the telescope plans were not returned as of press time Sunday.