Gov. David Ige has extended his moratorium on construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope project until April 20. This stay gives the University of Hawaii Board of Regents an opportunity to take public testimony at a special meeting Thursday at 11:30 a.m., at UH Hilo.

The only item on that agenda is: “The Management of Mauna Kea and the Mauna Kea Science Reserve.” Mauna Kea protectors are hopeful that the board will reconsider approval of the sublease it granted on Feb. 20, 2014.

An examination of the approved minutes of that meeting reveals that many regents were not as prepared to raise critical concerns as they are today.

Supporters draped in the Hawaiian flags chant as they approach the Mauna Kea visitor center.  10 april 2015.  photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Supporters draped in the Hawaiian flags chant as they approach the Mauna Kea visitor center.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

UH Hilo Chancellor Donald Straney walked regents through the agenda item, “Approval of Mauna Kea Sublease and Non-Exclusive Easement Agreement with TMT International Observatory, LLC.” After introducing his colleagues and providing a brief historical overview of the TMT project, Straney quickly cited the “full Environmental Impact Statement” (EIS) and its approval in 2009 and 2010 by then-Gov. Linda Lingle.

Straney also mentioned that the Mauna Kea Management Board approved the proposal, but on condition that the regents approve the sublease in open session.

Conditional approvals like this should be a red flag for the subsequent authorizing body to take a closer look at the content and context of the issue at hand. Had the board appreciated this call to action, and fully vetted the proposal with greater public outreach, the sublease might not have been granted.

Opportunity for Greater Public Input

One of the most important sections of the EIS is the Cultural Impact Assessment, or CIA. With the recent heightened media coverage, members of the public has been combing through the EIS and offering their own analysis of the comprehensive CIA.

As KawikaVilla commented recently on a column posted on frolichawaii.com, “They attempted to contact 60 people for their ‘assessment.’ They received 39 responses, and only 4 were in favor. Ten percent were in favor. Sixty people to represent the thoughts and beliefs of all native kanaka?!”

The minutes of the February 2014 BOR meeting at UH Manoa reflect that several regents expressed concerns with the lack of outreach. After hearing many Manoa students testify in opposition to the project, Regent Chuck Gee, a self-described “strong advocate” of students, pointed out that testimony that day was 4:1 in opposition to the lease.

The minutes also captured Regent Jeffrey Portnoy’s comments on testimony provided by the Manoa students: “They felt rightfully wronged that they had not been included in of the outreach programs.” He continued, “There is a lesson that can be learned that there may be island-located matters that are really statewide in significance, particularly Mauna Kea and its relationship to the Hawaiian community, regardless of whether they live on the Big Island or are students at UHM on Oahu.”

Portnoy concluded, “In the future, when an issue like this can be anticipated, a larger effort can be made to engage more than just where the issue is domiciled.”

Arguably, that future is now, and the larger community is demanding that it be heard on this issue.

A Chance for OHA to Reconsider

When then-Regent John Dean asked Chancellor Straney for reassurances that there had been significant outreach toward the native people of Hawaii, Straney cited “several hundred meetings on the Big Island with various community members.” Then Dean inquired about the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ position. Straney reportedly said he believed “the trustees of OHA did pass a resolution in support of the project.”

The resolution that Straney referred to was cited in the CIA: “Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) adoption of a motion on July 2, 2009, that ‘In consideration of various cultural and economic factors, the OHA Board of Trustees resolves to support the selection of Maunakea, Hawai’i, as the site for the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope Project.’ ”

OHA does not have online access to meeting minutes prior to 2010. The OHA newspaper, Ka Wai Ola, which covers OHA meetings, is not accessible prior to 2013. But OHA Trustee Rowena Akana’s personal blog does go back to that July 2009 meeting and includes her Ka Wai Ola column on the vote to approve the TMT.

It is evident from that account that she did not support the TMT Project: “Despite these serious concerns, instead of OHA suing the University of Hawaii for mismanagement of sacred ceded lands, on July 2, 2009, the Board of Trustees voted in favor of an OHA resolution supporting the selection of Mauna Kea as the site for the proposed TMT project. The question is why?”

The serious, unanswered concerns Akana referred to were sent in a letter written by an OHA administrator to the TMT Project of UH Hilo just a few days before the vote was called. They were serious enough that the vote should have been deferred.

The concerns included: the incompleteness of the draft EIS; the fact that the EIS did not sufficiently stress that there were alternative sites available, such as the Chilean site at Cerro Armazones; and most importantly, “The cultural resource analysis of the draft EIS is ‘wholly flawed’ and does not properly examine the impacts of siting what would be the largest telescope on Mauna Kea.”

Akana pointed out that she and two other trustees were excused from that July 2, 2009, meeting, so only six of nine trustees voted. It would have taken only a minority of four trustees to pass such a damaging resolution. In the six years since that vote was taken, four new trustees have voiced some degree of solidarity with the Mauna Kea Protectors: Leina’ala Ahu Isa, Dan Ahuna, Carmen Hulu Lindsey and Peter Apo.

OHA should view Ige’s extended moratorium as an opportunity to allow current trustees to consider the groundswell of information and strong opposition to the project and take another vote on its approval of the TMT on Mauna Kea. At the very least, OHA should inform the regents that OHA is in the process of reassessing its approval and ask the university to suspend the sublease in the meantime.

Kenoi Can Come in From the Cold

Before the regents took the vote to approve the TMT sublease in February 2014, Chancellor Straney tried to smooth over the opposition testimony by citing the words of Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi.

The minutes capture Straney’s statement: “The current mayor of the Big Island has said it best; astronomy is a sacred science and Mauna Kea is a sacred place, and sacred things can go together. That is the idea Chancellor Straney keeps in mind when thinking about the mountain.”

Eight months after UH approved the sublease, on Oct. 7, 2014, Mayor Kenoi was scheduled to speak at the groundbreaking of the TMT construction site. On the road to the site, demonstrators had created a roadblock, and Kenoi attempted to diffuse the situation. The Hawaii Tribune Herald reported Kenoi told them, “Akua gave us all this to respect and love each other.”

Kenoi assured the demonstrators at the time that there would be no arrests. Arrests were not made that day. But since then, Kenoi has permitted the arrest of 31 peaceful demonstrators.

Months later, Kenoi finds himself is at the center of multiple investigations over personal use of his government credit card. Ige’s moratorium extension gives Kenoi an opportunity to humbly reflect and reconsider his support for the desecration of Mauna Kea.

Kenoi may not have much to lose at this point if he comes out against the TMT construction. Instead, he may find comforting forgiveness in the warm embrace of the protectors chanting in the cold.

About the Author

  • Kim Coco Iwamoto
    Kim Coco Iwamoto was elected to the Hawaii Board of Education in 2006 and served until 2011. She also served on the Hawaii Teachers Standards Board from 2009 to 2011 and the Career & Technical Education Coordinating Advisory Council from 2007 to 2011. She was appointed to a four-year term on the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission in 2012.