Employees of existing telescopes say they’re ‘collateral damage’ in TMT conflict

Growing frustration for astronomy technicians and contractors at Mauna Kea

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - For a fourth week, the existing telescopes atop Mauna Kea are sitting idle. Technicians say they can’t get reliable access to them.

From the first day of the Thirty Meter Telescope protest at the base of Mauna Kea, access to the summit has been debated. Leaders of the protest have repeatedly said they’ve accommodated astronomy technicians so they can make repairs, but engineers say the process going up isn’t easy.

In the meantime, the lack of research has frustrated scientists and technicians say they’re growing increasingly concerned about leaving the telescopes without regular maintenance.

A tech crew from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope went up to the summit last week to make hurricane preparations.

Operations Manager Ivan Look said that since last Friday they’ve been requesting access to the summit again because of a crane issue and just got approval Tuesday for a visit Wednesday.

"It's an involved process. I think we started last week Friday to try to get this move tomorrow and we just barely heard back," he said.

To get permission to access to the summit, astronomy technicians and engineers say they contact the University of Hawaii’s Office of Maunakea Management with a list of who needs to go up.

The agency informs law enforcement, which contacts leaders of the protest camp and then approval goes back through the chain.

“Then we drive up on the side access road to the Mauna Kea Access Road. We’re allowed to get back on the main road and then head up,” said Rich Matsuda, chief of operations at W.M. Keck Observatory.

About 500 people work at the summit of Mauna Kea. During the standoff, there’s been no research either ― from the summit or remotely.

"The employees really want to get back to work. They love what they do," said Matsuda.

Added Look, “It’s hard for me because I have friends and family who are at the protest itself and so for me I’m kind of caught on both sides."

Astronomy technicians say the instruments need daily maintenance, but it’s difficult to say when more permanent damage could start to happen.

Meanwhile, a 60-day job to install a solar electric system at the W M Keck Observatory is on hold.

“It’s kind of frustrating obviously. The situation right now, we are becoming basically collateral damage unfortunately. It’s part of this process,” said Adam Long, president and owner of Sakoda Construction.

Long says he had to lay off one employee because of the delay and dozens of other contractors are impacted by the standoff. He doesn’t know when the job could get started.

Copyright 2019 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.