Tuesday | August 22, 2017
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Thumbs up for TMT: Contested case hearing officer gives observatory positive recommendation

The Thirty Meter Telescope received a positive recommendation from hearings officer Riki May Amano, buoying the beleaguered project’s chances less than a year from a self-imposed construction deadline.

Amano, a retired judge, oversaw a lengthy contested case hearing for the proposed $1.4 billion observatory’s land use permit for Mauna Kea that included more than four months of testimony from 71 witnesses.

She issued her 303-page report Wednesday, which concluded the 180-foot-tall observatory meets the criteria for building in a conservation district.

The report lists several dozen conditions, including ensuring employees attend cultural and natural resources training and that the project will implement an invasive species control program.

In a statement, TMT Executive Director Ed Stone said the organization appreciates Amano’s effort to “ensure all voices were heard.”

“We are grateful to all our supporters and friends who have been with us during the hearing process and over the past 10 years and we remain respectful of the process to ensure the proper stewardship of Maunakea,” he said.

While disappointed, opponents, many of whom see construction of the observatory near the summit as desecration of sacred land, say they intend to pursue the matter back to the state Supreme Court if needed.

“We still have hope and we still believe in justice,” said Kealoha Pisciotta. “We’ve been at this point before.”

Next, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources will review Amano’s recommendation and conduct a hearing to allow objections to be presented before voting.

The board previously approved the permit in 2011, but the state Supreme Court later ruled the agency “put the cart before the horse” by having a vote prior to the start of the first contested case hearing.

Amano’s quasi-judicial hearing, which involved more than two dozen parties, many of whom were pro se, was the result of that ruling.

Many of the participants included Native Hawaiians whose protests stopped construction on Mauna Kea prior to the 2015 decision. A group of pro-TMT Hawaiians also participated in the hearing.

Pisciotta, who participated in both contested case hearings, said she was surprised Amano didn’t take more time.

The evidentiary portion of the hearing ended in March. The parties submitted their proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law at the end of May.

“I would have thought she would have needed more time to process all the facts,” Pisciotta said.

Thayne Currie, an astronomer with the Facebook group Yes2TMT, applauded Amano for handling the highly contentious issue professionally.

“My sense of it is it’s a very thoughtfully considered decision that also I believe reflects the will of the people of Hawaii,” he said.

Currie said he thinks the process was fair and this time will hold up in court.

“I think it made an attempt to give the pro se parties a voice, but also she did make the decision by the book based on facts and the law,” he said.

Pisciotta said their voices were heard but concerns weren’t addressed.

“We were heard but not effectively listened to,” she said. “The remedy has not been issued.”

In a statement, Gov. David Ige thanked Amano “for her diligent work in making a recommendation to the Board of Land and Natural Resources regarding the Thirty Meter Telescope.”

“We are in the process of reviewing the conditions included in the decision,” Ige said. “Regardless of the BLNR’s ultimate decision, I support the coexistence of astronomy and culture on Mauna Kea along with better management of the mountain.”

The observatory would be among a new generation of powerful telescopes capable of collecting the oldest light in the universe. There are 13 telescopes on Mauna Kea, one of the world’s premier sites for astronomy that also is considered sacred to Hawaiians.

TMT International Observatory, a nonprofit organization that is building the next-generation telescope, has set April 2018 as a deadline for resuming construction. The TIO board, which includes representatives of the partner countries, selected the Canary Islands as a backup site.

It’s not clear if the project can meet that deadline.

The project also faces having to hold a contested case hearing for its sublease with the University of Hawaii.

Hilo Circuit Court Judge Greg Nakamura ruled last December that cultural practitioner E. Kalani Flores should have been granted the quasi-judicial hearing before the lease agreement was approved in 2014.

The state appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

The telescope organization’s partners are Caltech, University of California, Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy and national institutes in Japan, China and India.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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