In Hawaii, Construction to Begin on Disputed Telescope Project

By Dennis Overbye

Work on the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, bitterly opposed by Hawaiian activists, could start soon.

ImageArtist’s impression of the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory.
Artist’s impression of the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory.CreditCreditTMT International Observatory
Dennis Overbye

Gov. David Ige of Hawaii announced on Thursday that a “notice to proceed” had been issued for construction of a giant, long-contested telescope on Mauna Kea, the volcano on the Big Island that 13 major telescopes already call home. Construction could start as soon as July.

Such an announcement has been anxiously awaited both by astronomers and by Hawaiian cultural activists since last year, when Hawaii’s Supreme Court restored the telescope’s building permit. As part of the deal, five telescopes currently operating on Mauna Kea will be shut down and their sites restored to their original condition.

“We are all stewards of Mauna Kea,” Governor Ige said. He pledged to respect the rights and cultural traditions of the Hawaiian people, including the freedom to speak out against the telescope.

He asked that further debate happen away from the mountain, where steep roads and limited water, oxygen and medical services pose a safety risk. As he spoke, arguments were already breaking out on Twitter and Facebook.

“This decision of the Hawaiian Supreme Court is the law of the land, and it should be respected,” he said.

The announcement was another skirmish, surely not the last, for control of the volcano’s petrified lava slopes and the sky overhead. The Thirty Meter Telescope would be the largest in the Northern Hemisphere. Hawaiian activists have long opposed it, contending that decades of telescope-building on Mauna Kea have polluted the mountain. In 2014, protesters disrupted a groundbreaking ceremony and blocked work vehicles from accessing the mountain.

Mauna Kea is considered “ceded land” held in trust for the Hawaiian people, and some Hawaiians have argued that the spate of telescope construction atop the mountain has interfered with cultural and religious practices.

The Thirty Meter Telescope would be built by an international collaboration called the TMT International Observatory. The project, which involves the University of California and the California Institute of Technology as well as Japan, China, India and Canada, is expected to cost $2 billion.

In December 2015, the state’s Supreme Court invalidated a previous construction permit, on the grounds that the opponents had been deprived of due process because a state board had granted the permit before the opponents could be heard in a contested case hearing. The court awarded a new permit last year.

At the time, astronomers with the project said they would build the telescope in the Canary Islands if denied in Hawaii.

On Wednesday night, in a precursor to Thursday’s announcement, state authorities dismantled an assortment of structures that had been constructed on Mauna Kea by protesters.

The structures included a pair of shacks called “hales,” one located across from a visitor center halfway up the mountain, where protests had been staged, and another at the base of the mountain that activists were using as a checkpoint.

Also dismantled were two small stone monuments, or “ahus” — one on the road leading to the telescope site, the other in the middle of the site, according to a spokesman for the TMT project. They were built only recently, without a permit, and so were deemed by the court to have no historical value.

But Kealoha Pisciotta, a leader of the opposition, called the dismantling a “desecration” and “a hostile and racist act,” in an email. “They call these Religious structures illegal structures but our rights are constitutionally protected and the right specifically protected is our right to ‘continue’ our practice,” she wrote.


An earlier version of this article misstated the year when protesters disrupted a groundbreaking ceremony for a telescope on Mauna Kea. It was 2014, not 2015.

Dennis Overbye joined The Times in 1998, and has been a reporter since 2001. He has written two books: “Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Story of the Scientific Search for the Secret of the Universe” and “Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance.” @overbye

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: Work Begins On Telescope Atop Volcano. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe