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Another victory for TMT project

  • An artist's rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope against a backdrop of the other Maunakea telescopes.

The state Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the construction permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope will stand.

The high court filed an order Thursday afternoon denying motions for reconsideration from project opponents, a month after it ruled 4-1 in favor of granting the permit to build on Maunakea.

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“We are pleased with the Hawaii Supreme Court’s decision on the matter,” said Douglas Ing, an attorney for the TMT International Observatory. “These motions filed by the opponents simply repeated arguments previously raised, considered, and addressed by the state Board of Land Natural Resources and the Supreme Court. The motions presented no new facts nor did they cite applicable legal precedents not already considered.”

Scott Ishikawa, a spokesman for TIO, said the organization is working to fulfill preconstruction requirements set by the permit issued by BLNR.

As for a timeline for when construction could resume, he said that would roughly take “at least several months.”

Some opponents of the project have said they plan to try to block construction. Protesters, who called themselves “protectors,” repeatedly blocked construction vehicles in 2015 before the high court overturned the permit because of due process issues.

BLNR issued another permit in 2017 after a lengthy contested case hearing, which led to another appeal to the Supreme Court.

Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the appellants who challenged the project in court, said “everything is on the table” in regard to trying to stop the $1.4 billion observatory from being built on the mountain, which some Hawaiians consider sacred.

She said people will “rise up” but declined to say if that meant additional protests or acts of civil disobedience.

“We’re going to use all the avenues we can, including legal avenues,” Pisciotta said.

The permit is held by the University of Hawaii, which manages the Maunakea Science Reserve.

In a statement, UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said TIO and the university are reviewing conditions set by the permit for construction to restart.

Those include construction documents, state Department of Health permits, and preparation of a best management practices plan.

“TMT and UH are also reviewing steps and actions for compliance with the Comprehensive Management Plan and mitigation measures,” Meisenzahl said. “Once complete, the university will then submit a request to the Department of Land and Natural Resources for approval to proceed with the construction.”

The court also denied a request from Kua‘aina Ulu Auamo, Colette Machado and Dan Ahuna to file a brief in support of the reconsideration request.

On the motions for reconsideration, the court entered two orders.

One was a 3-2 decision, which resulted in changes to two footnotes in the decision upholding the permit, and another was a 4-1 decision that resulted in no modifications.

Regarding the former, Justice Richard Pollack entered a separate order concurring in part and dissenting in part to the majority’s decision not to grant the request.

He said he would grant that motion for reconsideration only if it applied to the public trust framework set by a previous case.

Justice Michael Wilson, who was the sole dissenting justice in the case, wrote Thursday he concurs with the footnote changes but that he thinks the motion for reconsideration should be granted. In his dissent, Wilson argued the majority isn’t properly considering cumulative impacts to the summit region from astronomy development.

The 180-foot-tall observatory, more powerful than any existing telescope, is set to be built at the 13,100-foot elevation.

Supporters say it will keep Hawaii at the forefront of astronomy and support STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education on the island.

Opponents are concerned about impacts to the environment or Hawaiian cultural practices.

Permit conditions include the removal of five of the existing 13 telescopes on the mountain.

The partners for the project selected Maunakea as the proposed site in 2008.

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The current partners are Japan, China, India and Canada, in addition to the University of California and Caltech.

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