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After years of protests and legal battles, Hawaii officials have announced that a massive telescope will be built on a volcano that some consider sacred.
Gov. David Ige said Thursday that the state has issued a “notice to proceed” for the Thirty Meter Telescope project.
The permit was issued after the state Department of Land and Natural Resources confirmed the completion of pre-construction conditions and mitigation measures required of the project.
But Ige and other state officials did not say when construction will begin, other than to say a determination will be made at a later date.
“The appropriate agencies will work with the TMT representatives to determine the start date,” according to a press release from the governor’s office.
At the press conference, officials also repeated several times that the TMT project had gone through a lengthy review process and must not be halted. But they also emphasized respect for Hawaiian culture even as they stated that safety and security for all parties involved is paramount.
“We will proceed in a way that respects the people, place and culture that make Hawaii unique,” said Ige. “I will continue to work with the University of Hawaii and all our partners to make meaningful changes that further contribute to the co-existence of culture and science on Mauna Kea.”
In October, a state Supreme Court 4-1 ruling upheld the permits for the $1.4 billion instrument.
The TMT issue pits science against culture. It is also an economic and environmental issue.
Opponents say the telescope will desecrate sacred land atop Mauna Kea, the state’s highest peak and a place of religious importance to Native Hawaiians.
Scientists say the summit is one of the best places on Earth for astronomy. Several telescopes and observatories are already on the summit.
At a press conference at the state Capitol, Ige, Attorney General Clare Connors, Chair Suzanne Case of the Department of Land and Natural Resources and University of Hawaii President David Lassner stressed their hope that any protests over TMT construction be civil and respectful.
“We are all in this together,” said Connors, who encouraged protesters to exercise 1st Amendment rights elsewhere, as previous protests were held at the high-altitude location on the mountain.
Connors said there are also limited resources in the area, including medical and bathroom facilities. She also said law enforcement would make sure construction workers can do their job.
“The notice to proceed with construction gives project managers, workers and others from our community authorization to begin work on the telescope,” she said. “They will need safe access to the work site and safe conditions under which to work. The state will work to ensure their safety as well as the right of individuals to engage in speech about the project.”
But in an indication that protests are likely to occur, an arrest was made Thursday morning and two ceremonial structures called ahu were removed by authorities.
The ahu were on the TMT site, something the Hawaii Supreme Court said “did not constitute a traditional or customary right or practice,” according to the governor’s office.
In 2015, protesters — some who identified as protectors of the mountain — succeeded in blocking construction workers from getting to the the summit. There were also many arrests.
Comments on the governor’s Facebook page, which live-streamed the news conference, illustrated the lingering strong divide over TMT.
“What about the rights of sacred Hawaiian lands?” wrote Tahiti Reed. “This is our sacred temple! So Hawaiian people need to just stand aside ‘peacefully’ while you destroy this sacred place??? WTF!!”
Contrast that with this comment by Thayne Currie: “A solid majority of people on Hawaii island support TMT.”
The TMT, described as the “next generation telescope,” will be constructed on UH-managed lands located in a conservation district regulated by the Board of Land and Natural Resources.
According to the state, the TMT will be the last telescope “footprint” on Mauna Kea, officials say, and four other telescopes on the mountain will be decommissioned.
Henry Yang, chair of the TMT International Observatory Board of Governors, issued a statement in response to the news: “TMT is pleased and grateful that the notice to proceed has been issued by the Department of Land and Natural Resources to the University of Hawaii. We remain committed to being good stewards of Maunakea, and to honoring and respecting the culture and traditions of Hawaii. It has been a long process to get to this point. We are deeply grateful to our many friends and community supporters for their advice and for their encouragement and support of the TMT project over the years.”
Lassner, the UH president, described the notice to proceed as “an important milestone” in a decade-long public and consultative process “through which every requirement in statute, policy and procedure has now been met.”
“We firmly believe in the benefits of the most advanced telescope in the world on the most magnificent and awe-inspiring mountain in the world,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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