TMT forges ahead despite pandemic; opponents keeping close eye on project

  • Tribune-Herald file photo Kaho‘okahi Kanuha talks with TMT opponents July 17, 2019, on the Maunakea Access Road about moving vehicles that were parked in lanes of traffic on Daniel K. Inouye Hwy.

  • Tribune-Herald file photo Jason Momoa holds the hands of children, Nakoa-Wolf Momoa, left, and Lola Momoa, right, on July 31, 2019, as he is welcomed with hula on the Maunakea Access Road.

  • Tribune-Herald file photo A kupuna is arrested July 17, 2019, on the Maunakea Access Road.

A top official of the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory project said Wednesday — exactly one year after protesters blocked Maunakea Access Road to prevent construction of the next-generation telescope — that the multinational partnership is still “committed to try and make it work in Hawaii.”

“We’ve faced a six-year delay either due to people blocking the road or to process failures as outlined by the state. But we’re still here,” said Gordon Squires, TMT’s vice president of external relations.

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Project opponents, who call themselves kia‘i, or protectors of Maunakea, have twice performed successful blockades of the road, in 2015 and last year. After the first protests, the state Supreme Court ordered a second contested case hearing over a Conservation District Use Permit, ruling the approval process the first time was flawed. The hearing was conducted and the permit approved.

Squires said the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated any projected start time for the project and that construction is stalled until at least the spring of next year.

“We anticipated that, not only due to the COVID pandemic which is affecting all of us, but also because we don’t believe that their funding is secure,” said Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, one of the opposition leaders. “And we’re glad that they’ve announced publicly that they’re not coming for at least one more year, and it could be longer than that.”

Wong-Wilson said she’s certain supporters will answer the call, if necessary, to return to the mauna.

The pandemic has been a double-edged sword in the debate about the future of the mountain, causing the protesters to disband their camp in March for their own health and safety, as well as putting a hold on the project’s construction.

One source of funding hoped for by TMT is the National Science Foundation. A TMT spokesman told the Tribune-Herald it would be premature to discuss it at this time, but Wong-Wilson said the application process for a NSF grant could push the project’s construction timeline even further into the future.

“It will delay the project even more, because it will require additional studies,” Wong-Wilson said.

According to Squires, during the six years of delays, the project’s estimated price tag has ballooned from $1.4 billion to $2.4 billion — but the building of project components, such as the dome, continues despite the pandemic.

“We’re pleased with the progress we’re making around the international partnership, even though all of our partners are operating under some sort of work-at-home orders,” he said. “At this moment, all of our subsystems of the observatory are in a very advanced state. So 80% of our subsystems are either at final design, or at pre-production or in production. That’s a remarkable state to be in, given that we’re still not constructing on site.”

Rhea Lee-Moku, president of the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, said TMT is “really important to the business community” because astronomy “is one of those businesses that can continue to work through the pandemic.”

“If you have employment in the astronomy sector, those people need to buy food,” Lee-Moku said. “They need clothing. They need supplies. They go to restaurants. And they buy properties and build houses, or they rent. So astronomy helps to stimulate the economy, even in what people might consider to be unrelated sectors.”

Squires said research shows that, despite last year’s protests that stopped the construction for months, the community wants the telescope built.

“What we’ve seen consistently in polls for the last five years is that 90% of everybody in Hawaii said that astronomy and culture have a place together on Maunakea,” he said.

“That includes folks who say they oppose TMT,” Squires continued. “And in a March poll, we saw that over 80% of folks in Hawaii said that these protests really aren’t about TMT. They’re about larger issues facing the Hawaiian community — things like sovereignty or poverty, imprisonments, housing. And these are issues that are longstanding and overdue to be addressed.”

Wong-Wilson, who was one of 38 demonstrators, mostly kupuna, who were arrested and still facing charges of obstruction for blocking the road, described that characterization of protesters’ motivation as a diversionary tactic.

“They’re separate issues. They really are,” she said. “And whether TMT gets built or doesn’t get built, those are issues that need to be addressed by the (state) government and by the U.S. government, as well. The issue first, right now is, and always has been, TMT and it’s 18 stories. It’s just too big.

“The historical transgressions are there. They’ve been there since 1893. That is not the reason that myself, our kupuna and all of the people who are in this movement sat on the road.”

Wong-Wilson noted that those arrested for protesting the park project at Sherwood Forest in Waimanalo, Oahu, and a wind farm at Kahuku, Oahu, have all had their charges dismissed, as was done during the 2015 Maunakea protests.

“It’s only the kupuna, the 38 of us, who are the only ones who are still being threatened by the state and by the attorney general’s office,” she said.

Asked if he received a commitment from the state and county to ensure construction of TMT can start when the partners are ready, even if it means clearing the road of demonstrators, Squires said he’s not privy to conversations about law enforcement.

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“What we hear from the state and from the county is strong support for TMT, that we have every right to begin construction and that they will enforce the laws to make that happen,” he said. “What that looks like is really a question for them, however.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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