TMT board defers decision on project location

  • Associated Press file photo

    Telescopes are shown Aug. 31, 2015, on Maunakea, the proposed construction site for the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope.

  • Courtesy image

    An artist’s rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Should I stay or should I go?

That’s the question that’s hung over the Thirty Meter Telescope since protests and a legal challenge put construction atop Maunakea on hold about three years ago.

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But, without clearance to resume building in Hawaii or at a backup site in Spain’s Canary Islands, the TMT International Observatory’s board had no choice but to defer a final decision on the future home of the next-generation observatory, TIO Executive Director Ed Stone said Friday.

“We clearly appreciate the support and the growing support, and we feel that we’ve been good neighbors,” he said in a phone interview. “… I think in that sense we are encouraged, but clearly the timing is becoming more and more of an issue for us.”

TIO about two years ago set April 2018 as a deadline for resuming construction, which became a target for making a decision between Hawaii and La Palma in the Canary Islands, located off the northwest coast of Africa. Maunakea is considered a superior site for astronomy and remains the preferred choice.

Stone said there is no new deadline; a choice will depend on how the approval process moves forward in both locations.

“We can’t make a choice until we have a permit,” he said.

In Hawaii, the $1.4 billion project faces two appeals before the state Supreme Court. One applies to the land use permit the state Land Board reissued last fall. Legal briefs have been filed.

Another appeal pertains to whether a contested case should be required for the project’s sublease with the University of Hawaii for about 6 acres on Maunakea. Oral arguments occurred in March.

Meanwhile, TIO says an environmental impact assessment for a proposed site on La Palma was submitted. Once accepted, the project will apply for permits and other clearances, it said in a news release.

Stone said the organization set the April deadline because it expected to know by now where it could build.

According to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, newspapers in Spain and the Canary Islands reported the TMT board assured local officials that no decision would be made until November.

Stone said the project could receive a permit for La Palma at the end of the year, though he couldn’t specify a month.

“That’s a reasonable objective,” he said, even if there are legal challenges. “I can’t guarantee everything.”

The international partnership announced it selected La Palma as a backup site in October 2016.

Some Native Hawaiians consider Maunakea sacred, and opponents say the mountain is already overdeveloped. TMT’s permit for the mountain requires UH to remove several other telescopes.

Kealoha Pisciotta, a TMT opponent, said she is thankful TIO is going to “respect the legal process” by not making a decision while the cases are before the court.

“There is some concern there is no deadline, but, overall, we have to at least let the process unfold,” she said.

By setting a deadline and then deferring, Stone said TIO wasn’t trying to move the goalposts.

“They were moved for us,” he said. “The agencies have to conduct and carry out these various processes. We’ve been responsive I think in every case to what was required to be done.”

The state Land Board granted a land use permit for TMT initially in 2013 following the first contested case hearing.

In December 2015, the state Supreme Court overturned that decision after finding the state Land Board violated project opponents’ due process rights by voting in favor before starting the quasi-judicial hearing. The board voted again after the hearing. That decision forced the project through a second contested case hearing that lasted for 44 days in Hilo.

The Land Board again approved the permit last year following the conclusion of the second hearing. Contested case petitioners appealed. Separately, the state appealed a lower court ruling requiring a contested case for the sublease.

Thayne Currie, a Maunakea astronomer and TMT supporter, said in an email that he is optimistic the telescope will be built here.

“Support for TMT is the highest ever,” he said. “Just as important, I think the second contested case hearing really allowed the community to ‘clear the air.’ We ended up with essentially a compromise that the vast majority of the community seems to accept: TMT in exchange for five decommissioned telescopes and many other conditions. We are in a very different, much better place than 2015.”

A poll recently commissioned by the Star-Advertiser found 77 percent of Hawaii residents and 72 percent of native respondents support the telescope.

The state Senate passed a bill Thursday that TMT supporters worry could kill the project since it would set a construction moratorium for the mountain until UH completes several objectives, including receiving a new master lease for the Maunakea Science Reserve. The bill is expected to be dead on arrival in the House, which would then send it to a conference committee.

Stone said the bill would be a “serious setback” if it became law.

“That’s the reason we have a backup site should that happen,” he said.

The 180-foot-tall observatory — much more powerful than any existing telescope — would be built at about 13,100 feet above sea level, below Maunakea’s summit.

Scientists say it could unravel mysteries of the universe and identify planets elsewhere in the galaxy that could host life.

TIO’s partners include Japan, China, India and Canada, in addition to the University of California and Caltech.

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The telescope could reach first light in 2028 if built on Maunakea. UH is pursuing a new land authorization to allow telescopes to continue on the mountain beyond 2033, when its master lease ends.

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

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