Dozens of protesters have already been arrested, but the controversy over the construction of Thirty Meter Telescope on Hawaii's Mauna Kea is far from over.

The battle over the dormant volcano in the Big Island has been ongoing since the Mauna Kea was chosen as the site of the TMT in 2009. Now, the fight has migrated from the courts of law to the streets as protesters blocked the roads and chained themselves to structures in their efforts to halt the construction of the massive telescope on the mountain many Native Hawaiians consider to be a sacred site.

The Mountain's Scientific Value

With its impressive elevation of 13,796 feet above sea level and clear, unpolluted skies above, the Mauna Kea reportedly provides an unparalleled view of deep space. The volcano is located near the equator, which means both hemispheres are visible from the peak. Once the $1.4 billion telescope completed, astronomers will use the TMT to look as far back as 13 billion light-years ago to the birth of the first stars in the universe.

Thirteen telescopes are currently sitting on the peak of the mountain, with five of them slated for decommissioning as soon as the TMT is completed. The space observatory is envisioned to feature one of the biggest and most powerful telescopes in the world. It's expected to rise as tall as an 18-storey building.

Construction for TMT first began in 2014, but it stopped after the arrest of protesters in 2015. The state's Supreme Court ruled in favor of construction in 2018, with Hawaii governor David Ige stating his support for the telescope's construction.

The Sacred Mauna Kea

According to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Mauna Kea is considered to be a deeply sacred site in Hawaiian traditions. It continues to be a place of worship and prayer, as it's regarded to be a home of the gods as well as the "piko" or navel of life in the islands.

"We are a living people with a living culture," John Osorio, dean of Hawai'inuiākea, said in a statement. "Any attempt to intrude in this Pu'uhonua is a direct attempt to erase our people and culture and divides all Hawaiians."

Kahoʻokahi Kanuha, an organizer from the Hawaiʻi Unity and Liberation Institute, pointed out that the Mauna Kea sits on what's known as the "crown lands," which was part of the Hawaiian Kingdom prior to when it was overthrown in 1893. Many Native Hawaiian organizations consider these lands to belong to the Hawaiian people, saying that the United States stole it from them.

"These lands were taken from us, so we have rights to them," Kanuha explained to The Guardian. "We have a spiritual connection to them. We have a genealogical connection to them."

Beyond the spiritual and cultural value of the dormant volcano to the Native Hawaiians, the environmental aspects are also being highlighted in the protests. The endemic wēiku bug is found in the Mauna Kea as well as the Lake Waiau, where some locals still go to collect water or offer infants' umbilical cords.

With most of the TMT observatory structure expected to be built underground, a number of the opposition also brought up the environmental impact of its construction.

Alyssa-Marie Kau, who is a former law clerk with Earthjustice, pointed out that the construction could be a threat to the aquifer that's directly beneath Mauna Kea. Hazardous chemicals like motor oil and pesticides exist underground, which presents the possibility of contamination during construction activities.

"That aquifer is the main source of water for Hawaii Island," Kau told Grist. "So water contamination could be very damaging."

Local Protests And Future Plans For Mauna Kea

Last Monday, July 15, about 500 protesters headed to Mauna Kea to block the only road to the top and prevent construction from starting. Some chained themselves to the road, while other protesters sang and chanted at the base of the mountain.

Ige issued an emergency proclamation on Wednesday, July 17, to expand the state's authority in removing protesters from the mountain. Law enforcement made 34 arrests (33 kupuna or elders and one caregiver) on the same day, according to Honolulu Civil Beat.

More than 700 astronomers and students have signed an open letter speaking up against the criminalization and arrests of protesters in Mauna Kea. While the authors of the letter acknowledge the significance of the telescope to science, they also urge the community to examine the methods they're using to get it constructed.

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