Thirty Meter Telescope: Mauna Kea Protest is Not a Culture War
Mauna Kea's Natural Resources Have been Abused for Fifty Years
August 7, 2019
The protesters blocking the access road for construction of a new Thirty Meter Telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii are only the latest in a long line of protests regarding the dormant volcano.
All of these protests have had ample cause for frustration and anger. The volcano, designated a conservation district in 1964, has been exploited since that time with unpermitted construction, toxic waste, spilled sewage, and uncollected trash - all under the eyes of Hawaii's Bureau of Land Natural Resources (BLNR).
While the TMT seeks to exploit Mauna Kea's unique topography that produces one of the best places on earth to view space, and the protesters ostensibly seek to preserve the sacred summit of the mountain, the dispute is far greater than simply science versus culture.
There are currently thirteen observatories planted on Mauna Kea's summit. There was only supposed to be one. Those extra twelve, and the planned TMT, are just part of the story of the inept workings of a government agency that has no apparent accountability to anyone.
Mauna Kea is part of what is called "ceded lands," 1.8 million acres of Hawaii that had been owned by the royal family and which were ceded to the United States when the islands were annexed. In 1959, when Hawaii became a state, this land was transferred to the authority of the new state.
In 1964, while the University of Hawaii identified Mauna Kea as an exceptional site for astronomy, the state designated it a conservation district and gave jurisdiction to the Department of Land and Natural Resources (whose governing body is the BLNR). To allow for coordination between the two interests, the BLNR granted a 65-year general lease to UH for 13,321 acres at the summit of the volcano.
In 1968, a permit for "an observatory" was granted. Over the next twenty years, several telescopes began to dot the mountain. None of them had permits. The BLNR did nothing.
When the public protested the illegal construction, the BLNR granted permits that would be effective retroactively, hardly a legitimate exercise of the permitting process.
It wasn't until 1974, after growing public concern over the number of observatories crowding the once-pristine mountain, that the Hawaiian governor at the time, George Ariyoshi, directed the DLNR and UH to create a Master Plan for Mauna Kea.
All this directive did was motivate more new construction so it could be installed before the Master Plan was finalized. Each new building caused the Plan to become obsolete.
Meanwhile, trash from the various observatories was accumulating on the mountaintop. It took a formal complaint from the Sierra Club before UH removed the trash.
With no productive plan in place for the volcano and mounting public pressure, the state legislature finally ordered an audit of Mauna Kea's management in 1997. After a year of investigation, the State Auditor released a blistering report, detailing the past 30 years of mismanagement of Mauna Kea, by both UH and the state's own agency, BLNR. In addition to the exploitation of the land, the report made note of the financial inequalities. While $600 million had been spent on observatory constructions and $50 million per year was spent on operating the telescopes, no more than $1 per year had been collected in rent.
Proving that an investigation accomplishes nothing if an elected body fails to act, two more telescopes were built the following year.
After subpoenaed documents revealed spilled toxic fluids, sewage, and toxic mercury, another audit was requested in 2005. Meanwhile, an Environmental Impact Report for a NASA proposal claimed that 35 years of astronomical activity on the mountain had caused "significant, substantial and adverse harm." In 2007, the 3rd Circuit Court revoked NASA's observatory project permit, stating as reason that the state still lacked a comprehensive plan for the mauna - 33 years after one was ordered.
Finally, in 2010, UH came up with a Comprehensive Management Plan that included decommissioning and removing some observation structures. However, by 2017, only one observatory had begun initializing a decommission plan.
Despite the lack of any real progress toward removing structures, the BLNR granted a Conservation District Use Application to the Thirty Meter Telescope project in 2011.
In addition, the BLNR agreed to UH's request to renew their 65-year lease, despite the many years of abuses. Even the student body of the university voted to oppose the lease.
In 2014, a follow-up audit of Mauna Kea's management revealed UH had yet to institute a single rule to manage public activities on the mauna. The audit claimed UH was not even able to protect public health and safety, let alone the natural resource of the land.
The public did not ignore the continued abuse of process and the mountain. When the TMT attempted to hold a groundbreaking ceremony in 2014, it was halted by mauna protectors, call kia'i mauna.
In 2015, when contractors attempted to begin grading for an access road to the TMT construction site, 300 protestors showed up. At that time, the public pressure became great enough that then-Governor David Ige halted the construction. He stated, "We have in many ways failed the mountain. Whether you see it from a cultural perspective , from a natural resource perspective, we have not done right by a very special place."
A petition of 53,000 signees was handed to Ige, demanding a halt to TMT. In June, the number of protesters who arrived to block the road grew to 700.
In December, the Hawaii Supreme Court revoked the CDUP for the TMT and sent it back for reconsideration to the worst entity possible, the BLNR.
Given the history of failed promises and willful dismissal of environmental abuses, it is unsurprising that the Court approved resumption of TMT construction in October of 2018. Governor Ige announced construction would start up again in July.
And here we are, with protestors again blocking the access road, now joined by Hollywood actor and Samoan, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
The material for this article was gleaned largely from the video "Fifty Years of Mismanaging Maunakea," from Oiwi TV
(https://www.facebook.com/OiwiTV/videos/2217502428485024/?v=2217502428485024) /), which we encourage you to watch. The comments refute the idea that the native Hawaiians disregard science. "What you are going to see is how the media and the government often present Mauna Kea as a battleground for culture versus science. But that has never been the issue. Do not let that mislead you.
"The Hawaiian worldview does not separate those two things, as all of our practices that are regarded by Westerners as scientific-wayfinding and astronomy, aquaculture, ʻāina-based practices, etc.-are rooted in and woven through with our cultural beliefs. They grow from and nourish each other, one not living without the other.
"A real issue in this fight is the way the mauna is being cared for."