The proposal to build the Thirty Meter Telescope near the existing telescope complex at the top of Mauna Kea has gone from a project that has been in development for over 10 years, backed by a multinational effort, to one that was approved and broke ground, to one that is now bogged down by fierce opposition and negative court decisions.

There is so much at stake in the outcome of this debate. I believe that Kealoha Pisciotta, the president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, should decide to drop her group’s lawsuit seeking to block the granting of a building permit to the TMT group. I don’t suggest this lightly or flippantly, as if there is no debate to be had. In the best-case scenario, the Mauna Kea Anaina Hou’s lawsuit and general opposition may be the main factor in ensuring that everything about this project is done in the right way and in the best interests of the people of the Big Island.

However, I don’t believe there is by any means a negative consensus among the Native Hawaiian community as to the moral and cultural implications of the project. The environmental concerns of the project are addressable and able to be overcome. Most importantly, we cannot lose sight of what the existing Big Island astronomy sector means to Hawaii and what we stand to lose by rejecting the TMT project.

TMT Mauna Kea overall site3. 9 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The TMT site atop Mauna Kea in 2015. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This debate very well may determine if Hawaii — and more specifically, the Big Island — will disappear as a world leader in astronomy or step forward as the undisputed center of the astronomy world.

We should not see the TMT project as disrespectful to the Hawaiian culture because the endeavor is so noble, benefiting all mankind and allowing the Hawaiian people to shine. This project should be seen as an honor to the Hawaiian culture.

It is true that some Native Hawaiians have expressed a negative view of the TMT project in terms of cultural respect. However, some Native Hawaiians see it differently, such as Keahi Warfield, leader of the Native Hawaiian group called Perpetuating Unique Educational Opportunities Inc.

Warfield pointed out in a piece in May by Nancy Cook Lauer for Hawaii Tribune-Herald, “‘Even when land is considered sacred, that doesn’t mean people can’t use it,’ he said. PUEO’s members say telescopes atop Mauna Kea won’t diminish their culture because (the telescopes) provide youth of all cultures an opportunity to use modern-day tools to learn and explore their universe.”

Even a former Hawaiian king shared a similar opinion. King Kalakaua is quoted from September 1874 in a Smithsonian article saying, “ ‘It will afford me unfeigned satisfaction if my kingdom can add its quota toward the successful accomplishment of the most important astronomical observation of the present century and assist, however humbly, the enlightened nations of the earth in these costly enterprises…’”

If we can’t agree that serving as home to TMT is a full honor, maybe we can at least agree that it is not an egregious affront to Hawaiian culture and move on to discussing some environmental concerns that definitely do merit attention.

We should assure with 100 percent certainty that the aquifer that has its origins near the proposed building site is incapable of sustaining contamination due to TMT activity. Opposition groups have a right to be concerned as the aquifer supplies clean water to the east side of the island, and Pisciotta has said a more robust study on the impact to the aquifer is called for.

Although the concern is valid, there is no reason that this issue has to be one that stops the TMT from being built, as it represents an engineering problem that is completely solvable.

A TMT spokesperson told Civil Beat, “… there’s no way that anything that goes into the ground near the planned telescope can get into the aquifer. ‘It can’t happen,’ [Sandra] Dawson said. ‘It’s a physical thing, it’s not an opinion thing.’ ” The TMT group also says that all wastewater will be physically taken off the mountain.

Economic, Educational Opportunities

The TMT group is convinced, then, the aquifer will be protected, though they have a vested interest in that opinion. But if there is any question as to the veracity of that claim, then we as a community should insist that a truly independent expert concurs or disagrees. Astronomy is too important to the Big Island to allow a solvable problem go unsolved and destroy the future of astronomy in that environment.

Besides the problems of cultural perspective and environmental protection, there are the consequences of not building the TMT to consider, as well.

We should move forward with the TMT project because we cannot afford to lose the economic and educational opportunities that come with it. Hawaii Island was the majority beneficiary in our state of the $168 million impact of the astronomy sector in 2012; that sector ranges in impact from one quarter to one half of other major economic sectors in Hawaii.

The people of the Big Island already have very little in the way of native industry, and poverty is a significant issue. Similarly, the children of the Big Island have few educational and future job opportunities.

TMT currently donates $1 million to science education on the Big Island, and the current observatories are conducting a workforce pipeline for K-12 students. These yearly economic impacts and educational opportunities only figure to increase with the addition of the world’s largest telescope, the TMT.

Besides these tangible effects of not building the TMT, what about the effects of letting a minority group dictate policy that the majority does not agree with?

The people of the Big Island already have very little in the way of native industry, and poverty is a significant issue.

We should not let the project be blocked, because the majority of Hawaii residents are in favor of the TMT. A recent statewide poll showed that 62 percent of Hawaii residents, including 59 percent of Big Island residents, are in favor of the TMT being built.

We live in a society that generally accepts rule by majority opinion. This is, in fact, the underpinning principle of our society. We should honor that principle and not stand in the way of what the majority favor. If we lived in a society where a minority group continually dictated policy, it would undoubtedly lead to discontent, undermining our way of living.

We must not lose site of the big picture amidst the TMT controversy. The issue of cultural respect can very much be seen as a matter of perspective. While I would clearly see something like building a McDonald’s in front of a graveyard as disrespectful, I think it is reasonable that we should see the TMT as something glorious and as representing the virtuous aspects of mankind, like a cathedral.

While environmental concerns are valid and should be heard, they don’t represent a strong objection or one that cannot be properly addressed in this case. There is so much at stake for the Hawaiian people in the debate as to whether the Big Island community should allow the TMT project to proceed. We must preserve the precious economic and educational opportunities brought by the astronomy sector to the Big Island. We cannot afford to rip these opportunities out of the hands of the Big Island community and children.

Indeed, as Günther Hasinger, director of the UH Institute for Astronomy puts it, “If the lease is not renewed, ‘it would be the end of astronomy in Hawaii as we know it…’” We should politely ask Pisciotta and the Mauna Kea Anaina Hou to drop their lawsuit against the TMT’s request for a building permit.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author