Gearing up for TMT: State says county will take the lead regarding anticipated protests

  • An artist's rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Hawaii County is taking the lead on responding to anticipated protests of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea, lawmakers were told Thursday.

State Attorney General Clare Connors said her office is coordinating the state’s response, which will be in support of the county as the lead agency. She was addressing a joint hearing of several Senate committees in Honolulu.

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Protests against the large telescope interrupted groundbreaking in 2014 and halted construction the following year prior to the state Supreme Court overturning its land use permit because of due process violations. The court affirmed a new permit in November following another contested case hearing.

Some opponents of building the 180-foot-tall observatory on the mountain say they plan to block construction vehicles again. The mountain is culturally important to Native Hawaiians, and some consider it sacred ground.

Sen. Kai Kahele, who led the hearing, said authorities need to protect access for workers as well as the right to protest peacefully.

“We don’t want a Standing Rock situation on Maunakea,” said Kahele, D-Hilo, while referring to the heavy-handed response to pipeline protests in South Dakota in 2016.

Connors said she “couldn’t agree more.”

Both Hawaii County police and state Department of Land and Natural Resources conservation enforcement officers responded to protesters blocking the Maunakea Access Road in 2015 outside and above the visitor information station. Arrests were made, but many charges were later dropped.

County police officers left after protesters reached the state-owned portion of the road near Halepohaku.

Representatives of TMT International Observatory, the California-based organization building the next-generation observatory, provided a written response to topics addressed at the hearing but didn’t attend. A representative of Kahele’s office said an invitation was sent Jan. 4.

He said he was “disappointed” TIO wasn’t present, but added “we realize they may have their reasons, and we respect that.”

In an emailed statement, TIO spokesman Scott Ishikawa said: “TIO previously addressed the requested items during the most recent CDUP Contested Case and subsequent Hawaii Supreme Court hearings.

“Its leadership is currently focused on fulfilling the conditions of the Conservation District Use Permit. In parallel, we provided written answers to the questions specifically related to TMT in advance of the briefing and hope the information was well received.”

In attendance were representatives of DLNR, Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, University of Hawaii and UH’s Office of Maunakea Management.

Officials said TIO is working through the checklist it is required to complete before resuming construction, though no clarity was provided as to when work might resume. Only some grubbing and grading work was previously completed.

TIO’s land use permit approved by DLNR requires construction to begin within two years and be complete within 12 years.

Sam Lemmo, OCCL administrator, said it was unclear if the starting point was when the permit was issued in September 2017 or when the high court upheld the decision last November. His agency is responsible for approving a notice to proceed, and he said TIO can seek an extension if it misses the deadline because of something out of its control.

The hearing was a combined meeting of the Senate committees of Water and Land, which Kahele chairs; Higher Education; and Public Safety, Intergovernmental &Military Affairs.

Senators pressed the agency officials about decommissioning plans as well as UH’s process for seeking a new land use authorization for the mountain. Its existing master lease, which covers the telescopes, expires at the end of 2033, a few years after TMT is expected to become operational.

Greg Chun, OMKM board chairman and UH’s senior adviser on Maunakea, noted UH is seeking a new “land authorization,” which could mean transfer of lands through an executive order.

An environmental impact statement assessing different options, including a smaller land area, is expected to be done by summer 2020, he said.

Kahele questioned the timing of building a new telescope prior to the future of the master lease being determined.

“We want to make sure this project is successful,” he said.

In its written response, TIO noted it would seek a direct lease with DLNR if the master lease is not replaced in order to continue operations.

The TMT permit requires removal of five other telescopes.

Slated for removal are the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, UH-Hilo’s Hoku Kea teaching telescope and the United Kingdom Infra-Red Telescope, which UH also owns.

Bob McLaren, interim director of UH’s Institute for Astronomy, said the United Kingdom provided UH with $2.5 million for the eventual decommissioning of UKIRT when it took ownership a few years ago.

CSO decommissioning is being funded by Caltech, one of TIO’s partners. An environmental assessment for its removal is anticipated to be done this year, he said.

UKIRT should be ready to be removed by 2023, McLaren said.

He noted the telescopes are not obsolete, and could be put to use elsewhere.

“We are decommissioning telescopes that are or could be continued to be scientifically useful and employing people on the Big Island,” he said.

“But they are being decommissioned to meet the commitment for mitigation with the arrival of the Thirty Meter Telescope.”

Two other telescopes are required to be removed by the end of 2033 — the Very Long Baseline Array and another telescope yet to be selected.

McLaren said that likely would be another submillimeter telescope.

There are currently 13 telescopes on the mountain.

UH-Hilo has acquired a replacement telescope for Hoku Kea but is looking for a new site off the summit.

One issue raised was if TIO will have enough funds to complete the project, last estimated at $1.4 billion, and fund its eventual removal.

TIO — a partnership of Caltech, University of California, Japan, China, India and Canada — plans to place $1 million a year into a decommissioning fund once the telescope becomes operational.

Eventual removal of TMT was estimated to cost $17.1 million in 2013.

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“TIO has no intention of leaving such obligations unfulfilled,” the written response said.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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