The Thirty Meter Telescope project — thwarted by the one-two punch of protesters blocking construction and the Hawaii Supreme Court invalidating its permit — lost more than $1.76 million this year while its grading equipment sat idle atop Mauna Kea.
Now, the developer and eventual operator of the planned $1.4 billion next-generation telescope says it is waiting for the state to outline a new permitting process and projected timetable before it decides what to do next.
“TMT needs to understand the state’s process as soon as possible to keep the project moving forward,” project spokesman Scott Ishikawa said.
Joshua Wisch, special assistant to state Attorney General Doug Chin, said Friday that state officials are waiting for the state’s highest court to issue specific instructions on how to proceed.
Those instructions were not spelled out Dec. 2 when the court ruled that the state Board of Land and Natural Resources erred in approving the project’s conservation district use permit before holding a contested case hearing.
The court revoked the permit and said it would send it back to the board for a new contested case hearing with a stop first at Circuit Court. But the case has yet to be formally transferred by the court, Wisch said.
For now, it remains unclear whether the University of Hawaii, on behalf of TMT, will have to apply for another permit and produce new and costly environmental studies and associated documents, or simply start again at the contested case hearing, using the same application as before.
Either way, the project likely will be delayed for years as it winds its way through a new regulatory process and faces the same legal challenges and forces in the Native Hawaiian community that coalesced to block the planned 18-story observatory near the summit of Hawaii’s tallest mountain.
TMT officials were warned it wouldn’t be easy.
A 2007 report by a Colorado firm hired to provide an independent evaluation of the risks of developing TMT on Mauna Kea warned of serious headwinds, the high probability of litigation and a complicated and lengthy regulatory process.
The report, provided to the project’s major supporter, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, noted that to succeed at the Mauna Kea site, TMT would have to run a gauntlet of potential challenges and be prepared with “great flexibility” in regard to the telescope’s schedule and timing.
Serious headwinds were certainly felt in 2015. Ishikawa said TMT International Observatory LLC lost $220,000 a month, mostly in equipment rental, between March and Dec. 16, when its construction gear was removed from the summit.
On March 30, TMT vehicles and construction workers were first prevented from reaching the summit by protesters, many of whom vowed to prevent what they saw as desecration of a sacred mountain.
Crews were also blocked April 2 and June 24, despite arrests and other attempts by law enforcement to support TMT’s right to access the summit.
Construction planned between March and September included grading the observatory worksite and grading and paving the access road, according to TMT.
Ishikawa said that while the TMT had been planning to adjust its work schedule to make up for this year’s delay, that is no longer possible.
The project had been billed as the most powerful optical telescope in the world, capable of seeing more than 13 billion light-years away. It was scheduled to be operating and ready for scientific observations in December 2024.
In an affidavit filed with the state Supreme Court in November, Project Manager Gary Sanders said the TMT and its members had made cash and in-kind contributions to the project valued at more than $217 million as of May 2014.
For 2015 alone, he said, the work planned, budgeted and underway by TMT and its members — the University of California, the California Institute of Technology and the national research organizations of Japan, India, China and Canada — amounts to $107.5 million, nearly all for components.
In arguing against a request for a temporary stay that was eventually granted to project foes, Sanders said halting construction would threaten the project with “irreparable harm.”
Meanwhile, he said, work on the components of the TMT structure is advancing around the world:
>> In California, the primary mirror and mirror control system are in final design.
>> In Japan, more than 100 of 574 segmented glass mirrors have been produced and are being polished, and elements of the large main telescope structure have entered fabrication.
>> In India, fabrication of the mirror support system is underway.
>> In China, the designing of the TMT’s main steering mirror system and development of a laser guide star system are in their advanced stages.
>> In Canada, work is continuing on a cutting-edge steel enclosure designed to shield the telescope and its instruments from temperature variations, wind, snow and ice.
In the court document, Sanders said the delay threatens the availability of specialty materials and the commitments of vendors required to design and manufacture telescope components to the unique specifications of the project.
“Any halt in construction puts all those efforts in jeopardy,” Sanders wrote in his court declaration. “Such harm cannot be quantified.”
What’s more, Sanders said, the longer this project is delayed the longer the world is deprived of a multitude of important scientific discoveries, including exploring the physics of the early universe and the nature of dark matter currently inaccessible because of technological limitations.