Gov. David Ige of Hawaii announced Wednesday that construction will begin next week on a giant telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea, the volcano that looms over the Big Island of Hawaii.
The announcement was widely expected after a series of court rulings in recent years had gone the embattled telescope’s way. “We have followed a 10-year process to get to this point,” Ige said.
He was flanked at a news conference by Henry Yang, chancellor of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and chair of the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory. “We have learned much about the unique importance of Mauna Kea to all,” Yang said. “Hawaii is a very special place that has long honored the arts of astronomy and navigation.”
He added, “We would like to acknowledge those who disagree with this project and their right to voice their disagreement.”
The Thirty Meter Telescope will be the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere, with a primary mirror bigger than a basketball court, and one of the most expensive: According to knowledgeable, unaffiliated astronomers, its costs could reach $2 billion.
But the project has been plagued with controversy and a series of legal and illegal obstacles. Activists have opposed it, saying that decades of telescope-building on Mauna Kea have polluted the mountain. In 2014, protesters disrupted a groundbreaking ceremony and blocked construction vehicles from mountain roads.
Mauna Kea is considered “ceded land” that once belonged to the Hawaiian kingdom and is now held in trust for Native Hawaiians. Some of them have contended that the construction of telescopes on the mountain’s summit — 13 so far — has interfered with cultural and religious practices. For others, the telescope project has become a symbol of Western colonization.
A poll last year by The Honolulu Star-Advertiser found that 72% of Native Hawaiians supported the telescope and that 15% opposed it. The general support, they say, is befitting the heritage of a people who traditionally navigated the Pacific by the winds, tides and stars. Many say they hope the telescope will bring technological and economic development to the island.
The telescope would be built by an international collaboration called the TMT International Observatory, led by the University of California and the California Institute of Technology but also including Japan, China, India and Canada.
This week a coalition of activists led by Kealoha Pisciotta filed a legal challenge in the 3rd Circuit Court of Hawaii, seeking an injunction against the telescope construction. The TMT International Observatory, the activists said, had failed to post a security bond that is required under a 1977 plan that governs the management of the mountain. The bond, in the amount of the full cost of the project, would cover the cost of restoring the site to its natural state once the telescope has finished its mission.
“By failing to post the bond, they have laid all financial liability on the People of Hawai’i, in the event the TMT doesn’t get full funding,” Pisciotta said in an email. “And this is especially important because they don’t have full funding now.”
In an email, Douglas Ing, a lawyer for the observatory, said: “We had a brief opportunity to review an unfiled copy of a lawsuit. We believe this is a weak lawsuit, and we expect to defeat it.”
It is only the latest chapter in a long series of protests and legal skirmishes. In December 2015, the state’s Supreme Court invalidated a previous construction permit on the grounds that the project’s opponents had been deprived of due process. A state board had granted the permit before the opponents could be heard in a so-called contested case hearing.
The TMT astronomers said they would build their telescope in the Canary Islands if denied in Hawaii. In October, the Hawaiian Supreme Court restored the telescope’s building permit. This summer, Ige announced that a “notice to proceed” had been issued, allowing construction. As part of the deal, five telescopes operating on Mauna Kea will be shut down and their sites restored to original condition.
Ige said the environmental reviews required for the decommissioning of two of those telescopes had already begun.
Yang said that it would take 10 years to actually build the telescope but that he did not know an estimate of the total cost. He stressed that the partners in the international collaboration were committed to finishing the project.
The Mauna Kea access road that goes up to the summit, which was the scene of protests and blockades last time around, will be severely restricted starting Monday, Ige said.
“We are asking people to be safe,” he said. “We ask they be respectful of those who work on this project.”
He added, “We are being respectful of those who choose to voice their disagreement with this project.”
He said he was working with the mayor of Hawaii County, Harry Kim, “to achieve a broader vision of Mauna Kea as symbol of peace and international collaboration.”
“I believe we can find a new way forward,” Ige said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.