In Hawaii, scientists and Native Hawaiians are going toe-to-toe over the decision to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop a sacred mountain. The summit of Mauna Kea already holds 13 telescopes, but this one would be vastly larger than the others and the largest telescope in the world until another is completed in Chile.
Sacred sites are often under attack by the mainstream, but in this battle, activists fighting the telescope have reason to believe they will win.
From the bottom of the sea to the summit, Mauna Kea is 33,000 feet high and the world’s highest mountain. It is Hawaii’s most ancient burial grounds for the most revered of ancestors; a place of shrines and ceremonies that plays a critical role in Native Hawaiian culture.
According to Native Hawaiian traditions, Mauna Kea is the first-born child of Father Sky and Mother Earth. From Mauna Kea, Native Hawaiian astronomers developed star knowledge and learned how to navigate the globe. They learned the earth was not flat thousands of years ago, by following the stars.
Kelani Flores, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and anti-telescope litigant in the Appeal to the Supreme Court of Hawaii, said, “It is Mauna A Wakea, the mountain of sky father. It reaches into the realm of sky father to connect with the divine, the star nations, and the grandfathers. In Hawaii, we call it Piko, the mouth on top of the mountain that connects the earth to the stars.”
The sacredness is seen differently by those who would profit from the telescope. At a June 13, TMT Lease Hearing with the Board of Land and Natural Resources, a TMT appraiser described the land as vacant, unimproved, and lacking infrastructure. This appraiser also placed an extremely high monetary value on the Mauna Kea land. TMT’s pursuit of a sublease would allow building to begin immediately, but was deferred by the board, pending additional information.
Stephanie Nagata, director, Office of Mauna Kea Management, University of Hawaii at Hilo, said the summit is steeped in folklore and creation stories and that the TMT would build below the summit “which does not impact archaeological sites, has limited biological impacts, but still has excellent conditions for astronomy research.” According to Nagata, the 186 foot tall Thirty Meter Telescope building and infrastructure would encompass less than five acres, just below the summit.
The University of Hawaii is responsible for managing the land, while the University of California, with partners from Canada, India, China, and Japan are involved in the telescope project.
According to Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, Great Britain has withdrawn its support and is focusing instead on the even more massive telescope in Chile.
The TMT telescope originally received approval from the Board of Land and Natural Resources in February of 2011, but Pisciotta said that was premature. The project has been appealed twice and is now headed to the state’s Supreme Court. “We have won all of our cases, the law is not on their side,” Pisciotta said.
In a previous situation, NASA and KECK Observatories proposed building 6 to 10 telescopes around an existing KECK telescope. “We sued in both the State and Federal courts, and we won in both,” Pisciotta said. “The state said the University of Hawaii had not met the requirements for the permit and negated it. The Federal Court said their Environmental Assessment was so bad the judge… said they should start over.” After three years of meetings and consultations, the projects were abandoned. “They have not been able to build since that time,” she said.
Pisciotta believes that some of the same principles will come into play with the TMT. The Federal Historic Preservation Agency must determine if the National Science Foundation’s grant of $18 million will be relegated properly. “Under the law they are not supposed to spend any money until they are completely compliant with Section 106,” Pisciotta said. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) requires Federal agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties, and developers can only improve upon the land without destroying the environment.
“This telescope is over 18 stories tall. We don’t even have a building that size on the island of Hawaii. The dome would be two-thirds the size of a football field.” Pisciotta added that more than eight acres of land would be excavated at the northern plateau, among shrines in a substantially scared area. “Over the years, development has caused drastic, adverse impacts on the mountain.”
Mauna Kea Management’s Nagata disagrees. She said, “The proposed TMT site is not on a cinder cone on the summit, but is located about 500 feet below, on rocky terrain that does not contain archaeological sites or burials, and is not preferred habitat for the (endangered) wekiu bug. Botanically, the summit hasn’t changed in 100 years. The TMT project will add only a limited increment to the level of cumulative impact.” While Nagata admitted there were numerous historic sites and burials on Mauna Kea, she said most are located away from the observatories, including the TMT project.
Countering that opinion, Pisciotta said, “We have actual evidence that accounts for archaeological sites and burial grounds. Thirty more burials have been found since the hearing. It is the burial ground and the place of our most sacred ancestors.”
“It’s beautiful,” Pisciotta said. “It’s basically where creator comes and accesses our realm. You have a 360 degree view, but we lost that because many of the peaks are now covered with man made features.”
There is a ring of about 3,000 shrines in the area, which Pisciotta said TMT blatantly disregards. “We have pages and pages and pages of testimony. The whole mountain is a burial site, and they haven’t even done a burial treatment plan,” she said.
“This plan is not sustainable, the telescopes are toxic. They use mercury and other hazardous materials above our aquifer,” Pisciotta said, and added, the TMT group, “just wants to build and to build at the expense of everybody else.”
Pisciotta worked on the mountain for 12 years, but when observatories wanted to build there, she said, “They took my family’s shrine down and threw it in the garbage. I just wanted them to protect the land. Our ancestors have always used star knowledge. There is the new way and old way—we get it. We have proven Hawaiians knew this stuff forever and their science has not kept up. All their education is very young.”
“Mauna Kea is a temple. In Hawaii, they tend to put us in jail even when they are the offenders, and so we are trying to use the law,” Pisciotta said.
Watch the trailer for “Mauna Kea: Temple Under Siege” here: