A Hawaiian judge has determined that the construction of a massive new astronomical observatory can proceed – with conditions – atop the state's highest mountain peak despite opposition by native groups that the project will impinge on an important cultural and religious site.
The decision marks the latest twist in what has become a rocky road to the mountaintop for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a $1.5-billion (U.S.) spyglass designed to peer to the farthest reaches of the known universe.
Canada has a quarter-billion-dollar stake in the international mega-science project that has long been slated for construction near the summit of Mauna Kea. With an elevation of more than 4,200 metres above sea level, the dormant volcano is widely considered to be the world's best astronomical observing site. Several major observatories, including the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, are located there.
Astronomers hoping to avoid a scenario that would see the TMT built at a less desirable location in the Canary Islands were buoyed by Wednesday's ruling from Judge Riki May Amano, the hearing officer for the case.
"This is very good news. Mauna Kea is our strongly preferred site and this brings us one step closer to construction on that site," said Michael Balogh, an astrophysicist at the University of Waterloo who led a report this year on the impact to Canadian astronomy if the TMT is not built in Hawaii.
Following its approval in 2013, plans for TMT went awry the following year when a groundbreaking ceremony was interrupted by protests. After a blockade prevented construction crews from reaching the mountain in 2015, Hawaii Governor David Ige imposed a temporary moratorium on the project. The Supreme Court of Hawaii invalidated the TMT's building permit in 2015 and remanded the case back to the state's Board of Land and Natural Resources. Several months of hearings followed, during which a coalition of opponents voiced their objections to the telescope.
In her 305-page decision, Judge Amano noted that the construction of the existing observatories on Mauna Kea had "cumulative impacts on cultural, archeological and historic resources," but that the proposal for TMT "reasonably protects identified Hawaiian rights and practices" provided certain condition are followed including a cultural training program for construction workers and contractors, the development of an archeological monitoring plan, and policies to limit vehicle trips to the summit.
Ray Carlberg, a University of Toronto astronomer and former TMT board member, said the project still faces hurdles including a potential Supreme Court challenge. "Basically, TMT is back where it was in 2014, with a permit in hand but with people waiting in the wings to blockade," Dr. Carlberg said. "The decision does not mean that the hard-core opposition has melted away."
Dr. Carlberg was removed from the TMT board after writing an open letter to colleagues suggesting that Canada should reconsider its membership in the project. The move sparked a debate within the Canadian astronomical community and led to the panel chaired by Dr. Balogh. In May, the panel recommended continued, if cautious, support for TMT while the legal battle over the Mauna Kea site plays out.
In addition to its legal issues, the TMT faces growing costs as a result of delay. "Many [partners] will not want to guarantee money until they know that the telescope has the support of the local community and that ongoing safe access to the site is not an issue," Dr. Carlberg said, adding that this week's ruling gives political leaders in Hawaii an opportunity to improve management of Mauna Kea "for the benefit of all Hawaiians."