Thursday, August 15, 2019
Telescope - The Saga Continues
Telescopes in Hawaii reopen after deal with protesters
By Daniel Clery, Aug. 13, 2019, Science
Astronomers at the 12 observatories atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii returned to work on 10 August, after a deal was made with protesters blocking construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).
State authorities brokered the deal, which includes the construction of a temporary roadway built across hardened lava around the protesters’ camp on the summit access road. Law enforcement will give protesters an advance list of all vehicles going up and down—to show that they are not associated with the TMT.
Astronomers are grateful for an end to the 4-week shutdown of the existing observatories—the longest in the 5-decade history of the Mauna Kea observatories. “It was very far-reaching,” says Sarah Bosman of University College London, who lost 3 nights of time to observe distant galaxies with the twin W. M. Keck Observatory telescopes. “Every area of astronomy was affected by this.”
The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) reported that on its first night back in operation, it located an asteroid called 2006 QV89 that was potentially on a collision course with Earth. Discovered 13 years ago, the asteroid drifted out of observing range before astronomers could get a fix on its orbit. The CFHT was perfectly positioned last month to pin down its trajectory when observations were halted. After a nail-biting month, CFHT astronomers picked up the asteroid’s trail straight away on the night of 10 August. Within an hour of publishing their results on 11 August, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, confirmed there was no risk of a collision at any time in the next century—including nine close encounters in the next decade.
The $1.4 billion TMT project, which will be the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere, has struggled ever since its groundbreaking ceremony was disrupted by protesters in 2014. Attempts to restart construction were delayed by court battles over the validity of the telescope’s building permit. Opponents say Mauna Kea is sacred and complain that the University of Hawaii mismanages the mountaintop observatories. The protests have also become entangled in issues of Hawaiian nationalism, self-determination, and land rights.
After the court challenges were dismissed and the permit reissued, Hawaii Governor David Ige (D) announced in June that construction would soon restart. But when the appointed day came, hundreds of people had set up camp, blocking the access road.
Despite polling showing that most Hawaiian voters support the telescope, crowds reportedly swelled to more than 1000 people at times. Social media campaigns have drawn support from across the globe, including actors Dwayne Johnson and Jason Momoa—who both visited the protest site—and Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren. “TMT had done a terrible job with social media,” Bosman says.
Last week, TMT management said it had applied for a building permit at its “plan B” site at La Palma in Spain’s Canary Islands. TMT Executive Director Ed Stone said in a statement that this was simply part of a process that has been going on since 2016 and that Mauna Kea “remains the preferred site for TMT.”
Astronomers are concerned that the TMT has been hijacked by issues that have little to do with science. “The state leadership really needs to be decisive, both on TMT’s access and on these broader issues faced in Hawaii,” says Thayne Currie, an astrophysicist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, who uses Mauna Kea telescopes. The astronomy community has also made mistakes, he says. “The resolution to this situation will likely include accelerated removal of decommissioned telescopes and Hawaiian land rights and self-determination. TMT and the astronomy community should support these efforts.”
The protests show no signs of slackening. The camp now hosts shops, cafeterias, and lectures. “It’s got to a point where the protesters probably don’t want a compromise anymore,” Bosman says. “It’s hard to see what would be compromise enough.”
And, to complicate the matter further:
Questions arise over Mauna Kea road
Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 8-15-19, Sophie Cocke via UC Daily News Clips
Hawaii Sen. Kai Kahele (D, Hilo) questioned whether the state Department of Transportation has legal jurisdiction over Mauna Kea Access Road during a legislative briefing at the state Capitol on Wednesday, setting up what could potentially develop into a larger legal issue for the Thirty Meter Telescope and other telescope sites atop Mauna Kea.
About 50 years ago, the Department of Transportation built Mauna Kea Access Road over Department of Hawaiian Home Lands property without permission. That road and others throughout the state that were built on DHHL land became part of a much bigger $600 million settlement that the state entered into in 1995 to compensate DHHL for the misuse of Hawaiian home lands. As part of that agreement, known as Act 14, the state was required to compensate DHHL for Mauna Kea Access Road via a land swap.
However, the state never executed a land transfer, DHHL Director William Aila told lawmakers during a legislative briefing called by the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee.
The Attorney General’s office says operational control over the road still resides with the Department of Transportation, even though 24 years later DHHL has yet to be compensated. Aila said Gov. David Ige’s administration is working to ensure the land swap is completed.
“The governor has made it a priority,” said Aila.
However, Kahele argued that without a completed land swap, the state had breached the agreement.
“If what you say is true, that the land exchange has never occurred, then without that compliance with Act 14, the state of Hawaii cannot claim title to Mauna Kea Access Road,” said Kahele to applause from opponents of the TMT who crowded the hearing room. “That road belongs to the beneficiaries of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act.”
DHHL still owns the land under the road raising additional questions about the rights of Hawaiian beneficiaries, said Kahele.
“When you have a beneficiary, as defined by the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920, sitting on Mauna Kea Access Road, what does not give them the right to be there if they are the beneficiaries of the trust and you just said it is still in your land inventory?” he said.
Aila said he was relying on the advice of the Attorney General’s office when it comes to jurisdiction.
“I have been advised by the Department of the Attorney General, who also advises you, that the transfer has occurred and therefore DOT has operational control over the road,” Aila said. “So you are entitled to ask the attorney general the same question that we did and see if you can get a different answer.”
The state closed Mauna Kea Access Road on July 15 to begin transporting equipment up the mountain to the TMT construction site, but opponents of the telescope, known as kia‘i, quickly set up a blockade. State law enforcement officers arrested about three dozen kupuna who were blocking the road on July 17, but have since backed off in what has devolved into a standoff between the state and TMT opponents with no clear path forward for the $1.4 billion telescope project.
Mauna Kea Access Road continues to be blocked by Hawaiians protesting construction of the TMT who have set up tents on the road. The number of demonstrators ebbs and flows and has grown to as many as a few thousand on weekends. The road has become the center of hula and musical performances, and where visitors offer gifts to the kupuna.
Alan Murakami, an attorney and community engagement officer for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, said the lack of a state land swap raises legal questions for TMT.
“If it is true that there has been no confirmation of a land exchange as contemplated under Act 14, then there is no transfer of title and should not be a transfer of title that would justify the assertion of control and management over any property that was not properly compensated for,” Murakami told the Star-Advertiser. He added that any trustee has a duty to protect trust assets from any loss.