TMT spokesman: Mauna Kea remains preferred site, no plans to back out

Updated: Jul. 21, 2019 at 7:57 PM HST
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MAUNA KEA, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - A spokesperson for the Thirty Meter Telescope spoke exclusively with Hawaii News Now Sunday saying project executives have no immediate plans to withdraw from constructing the $1.4 billion telescope atop Mauna Kea. They did however acknowledge the rifts being created in the island community because of it.

“Mauna Kea continues to be the preferred site for TMT," spokesperson Scott Ishikawa said. "We have a lot of supporters in Hawaii asking us not to leave, and at the same time, we know that’s not going to sit well with some. There’s been a lot of people expressing strong emotions over this and we regret that.”

When asked about alternative locations, Ishikawa said the Canary Islands was a second choice, but mentioned no solid plans for the project to be moved there.

Demonstrations near the foot of Mauna Kea have lasted for a week now, with opponents remaining at a makeshift blockade dubbed Pu’uhonua o Pu’u Huluhulu.

“As the days have gone on we’ve gotten bigger and bigger and as we’ve gotten bigger and bigger, we have gotten more and more organized,” opposition leader Kaho’okahi Kanuha said.

Telescope organizers have not turned a blind eye to strong opposition emerging in communities across the state.

“There’s been a lot of mixed emotions on this. I guess the main point is we’re happy and relieved that everyone remains safe. That’s always been our top priority,” Ishikawa said.

TMT Executive Director Ed Stone initially agreed to an interview with Hawaii News Now over the weekend, but in the end deferred to the project’s media spokesperson.

On Friday, Stone released the following statement:

“TMT has been very patient. We worked very long and very hard to comply with all laws and regulations. We’ve also worked long and hard with the community and to develop understanding and respect for the culture. We are and have been prepared to access the site, but our legal rights to access have been blocked. We don’t have the power to clear the blockade. We need to depend on law enforcement to do that. It’s a very difficult and urgent situation for us.”

When asked how long TMT was willing to wait before making their next move, Ishikawa said, “This has been a really unprecedented situation, and I honestly don’t know at this point.”

Ishikawa referenced a previous poll of residents showed there was a “huge majority that does support TMT.”

One poll from 2018 conducted by a mainland company and published by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser asked 800 registered voters across the state for their thoughts on the telescope being built on Mauna Kea.

Of those polled, the numbers reflected 77 percent supported the project in its currently planned location; 15 percent opposed, and eight percent of people were undecided.

Read the poll below:

It was the most recent poll Hawaii News Now was able to track down to fact check Ishikawa’s statement.

Despite the numbers, Native Hawaiians are standing by their argument that the massive telescope does not belong on the mountain that they consider sacred.

“We are unified for the purpose of saving our land and to take care of our lahui, our people," Piilani Crabbe-Jones said at a massive protest in Waikiki Sunday. “We would like if the state and the people would listen to us, and aloha our mauna. Aloha and give honor to the sacred mountain.”

Members of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs have expressed strong objection to recent arrests of kupuna on the mountain. Some OHA trustees have also demanded the immediate halt of the project — a request that has gone unanswered by the governor.

TMT officials for now are standing by their plans. They also say they have given back to education in the community by donating millions to science and technology programs in Hawaii.

“Thanks to the funding by TMT, there’s a lot more programs here and ways for these younger students to get opportunities to peak their interest at a younger age, especially through STEM,” Olivia Murray, Akamai Intern at the Gemini Observatory said.

“I would like to come back to a place like TMT to work for and it is my general hope that TMT will be built here and I can come back and work for TMT,” Murray added.

There may be no immediate end to the conflict in sight as opponents vowed to stand their ground for as long as it takes to protect the beloved mountain. TMT acknowledged the opposing view, but also stood firm on their end.

“In the end, this is Hawaii. Whether you agree or disagree on a position, you’re going to meet the same person in a grocery store or shopping mall. In the end, it’s best that we treat each other with respect,” Ishikawa said.

Copyright 2019 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.