Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Telescope - The View from Afar - Part 4

Project has legal right to start, TMT official says

Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Timothy Hurley, 7-30-19,
via UC Daily News Clips

A top official with the Thirty Meter Telescope said Monday that state officials need to find a way to allow construction of the next-generation telescope on Mauna Kea — and soon.

“I don’t have a firm deadline or date by which this must happen, but obviously, we’ve been through a 10-year process. We have every legal right to proceed. And so we need to get started and soon,” said Gordon Squires, TMT vice president for external affairs. Squires said the Mauna Kea summit, with its stable atmosphere above 40% of Earth’s atmosphere, remains the preferred site for the telescope expected to be among the most powerful in the world when it achieves first light in 10 years.

In an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Squires didn’t have any criticism of Gov. David Ige or government officials for the way they’ve handled the ongoing conflict on the mountain. He called it a complex problem that became much more complicated than anticipated. Squires said TMT officials respect the project’s opponents and are pleased the standoff has remained peaceful. He added that TMT was not privy to any of the security or enforcement planning in regard to the construction convoy. As for the project, TMT officials have done everything the state has required of them over the last 10 years, he said.

“There have been a lot of steps along the way that we’ve been asked to comply with. We have and we continue to do so. And we always operated under the assumption that if we do that, than we’ll be able to construct TMT. So that is still our assumption,” he said.

Squires said the TMT board of governors has never discussed pursuing any legal recourse should the project ultimately be blocked in Hawaii. Despite everything that has occurred in the last couple of weeks, Squires said he remains optimistic TMT can still happen here. The $1.4 billion-plus project is supported by the vast majority of Hawaii residents, he said, but it has been swept up in larger issues related to such things as Hawaiian sovereignty and past injustices. He said he’s hoping the impasse will spark a conversation about these problems.

“We’re just hoping some good can come out of this,” he said. “If TMT goes away, if TMT isn’t built in Hawaii, none of those other issues gets addressed.”

Squires said he was encouraged when Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim said he was looking to come up with a solution as soon as possible.

“So are we,” he said. “I’m an optimist by nature. I believe that a good set of people will come with good intentions for a good result.”

Despite another plea from the opponents at the base of Mauna Kea on Monday, urging the TMT to take its project to its Canary Islands backup site, Squires said TMT International Observatory still doesn’t have all the government approvals it needs to start construction on La Palma island.

 “It’s not like we could today say Plan B is available to us. Work still needs to be completed to get all the necessary legal and regulatory requirements in place,” he said.

Reports in Spanish and Canary Island newspapers indicate that TMT is getting closer in the approval process, but Squires said he couldn’t say exactly when permission will be granted.

“Like in Hawaii, the time frame has been difficult to determine,” he said. “We never thought in Hawaii it would be a 10-year process, but here we are.”

He did note there is no native population objecting to the proposed construction in the Canary Islands. Squires said TMT should be welcomed with open arms in Hawaii since astronomy’s Mauna Kea footprint will be significantly reduced with the planned decommissioning of five observatories.

What’s more, he said, some $450 million has been spent on the project so far, with a significant part of that going to Hawaii, including more than $5 million to educational programs, plus a commitment of $1 million a year for the 50-year life of the telescope.

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