Construction for the Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea, a controversial project for which UC Santa Barbara’s Chancellor Henry T. Yang chairs its board of governors, will remain paused until the end of February following concerns for the safety of workers and protestors at the site.
Hawaii Governor David Ige originally announced that the project would be paused on Dec. 19, giving protesters until Dec. 26 to clear the site or get arrested, USA Today reported. But in a new deal with Hawaii County, made on Dec. 26, protestors have instead agreed to move aside and unblock the access road, Hawaii News Now reported. The protestors will still remain at the site.
Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim said in a letter to protesters that “there will be no attempt to deliver construction equipment to Maunakea anytime soon.” Additionally, he added that “State and County agencies and law enforcement agencies will agree to stand down… there will be no attempt to remove [the] protector’s encampment.”
The project has drawn significant controversy since its groundbreaking in October 2014 and has remained a subject of criticism from Native Hawiians who claim it is desecrating Mauna Kea, believed to be one of the most sacred areas in all of Hawaii, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
The decision to halt construction came from the TMT International Observatory LLC (TMT) over safety concerns for workers and protestors, according to a statement from Gordon Squires, vice president for external relations for TMT.
“The state and Hawaii County have not demonstrated that they are able to provide safe, sustained access to Maunakea for everyone,” Squire said. In the past six months alone, the Hawaiian Government has spent over $15 million on law enforcement for the site, the Star Advisor reported.
Squire also noted that the organization is taking opposition to its project into account.
“We are sensitive to the ongoing struggles of indigenous populations around the world, and we will continue to support conversations around TMT and the larger issues for which it has become a flashpoint,” he continued.
Yang currently chairs the Thirty Meter Telescope’s board of governors, and his involvement faced backlash over the summer from students who opposed the project.
In September, the UC Student Association (UCSA), which is comprised of every UC student government, wrote a letter opposing the telescope and the UC’s involvement in the project.
In December, UCSB’s Office of the External Vice President for Statewide Affairs (EVPSA) and the American Indian Student Association (AISA) brought Native Hawaiian protestors to campus to discuss their opposition to the project and urge students to support their cause.
Despite the announcement about pausing TMT’s construction, Hawaiian elders and protest leaders said they were skeptical about TMT’s decision to pause construction after initially being given a deadline to vacate the area, according to the Star Advisor.
“[Governor Ige] making an obtuse statement that TMT has announced that they’re not coming for a while just doesn’t hold any water for us,” Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, a protest leader, told the Star Advisor.
Daevionne Beasley, the EVPSA of UCSB’s Associated Students, called the new announcements a “ploy” to remove protestors from Mauna Kea and clear the area for construction to resume.
“When I had first heard [TMT was] halting the construction, I thought it was a good idea,” Beasley said, who has previously spoken to Yang about his involvement with TMT and is a co-signer of the UCSA letter.
But combined with the fact that protesters have to move their tents to the side of the access road, Beasley believes “the government is trying to push [protesters] out so that [TMT is] able to go in and resume construction whenever they see fit.”
Beasley also believes the protesters’ biggest point of contention with TMT — its location on historically sacred land — can be remedied by breaking ground in a new location that doesn’t impose on “someone else’s indigeneous land.”
“The only solution in my head is to pause all development on the telescope until science is able to advance where [TMT doesn’t] have to build a telescope in an area where it would affect indigenous people,” he said.