The TMT International Observatory board, which for months has been saying it would decide by April whether to build the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii, is meeting at its Pasadena headquarters this week with an announcement expected Friday.
Don’t be surprised if the announcement is a postponement of the decision.
Newspapers in Spain and the Canary Islands — home to TMT’s backup site — last month reported that members of the TMT governing board assured local officials that the decision about where to build the $1.4 billion observatory would be delayed until November.
That would allow time for legal proceedings to play out in Hawaii and for construction permits to be approved for a summit on La Palma island, local astronomy officials told La Opinion de Tenerife, a daily newspaper in the Canary Islands.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Kai Kahele (D, Hilo) said last month that TMT officials told him their deadline is actually more like late summer or early fall, apparently based on the need to offer assurances to Japan, which is a partner in the Mauna Kea project.
“They would need safe access to the mountain no later than September 2018 or they’re really going to start looking for another location,” Kahele said.
TMT spokesman Scott Ishikawa declined to comment on the reports Wednesday.
If the reports are true, this would not be the first time the TMT’s timeline had changed. After the project was thwarted by protesters and a state Supreme Court ruling in late 2015, the board launched its search for an alternative site and set its sights on obtaining a construction permit for Mauna Kea by the end of 2017 — or the project would be moved.
“We have to move on,” TMT Executive Director Ed Stone said in February 2016. “Hopefully, moving on can be done here. But time will tell whether that’s possible.”
COURT CASES PENDING
A year ago TMT officials were still insisting that construction needed to start on Mauna Kea by April 2018 — or the project would go to La Palma. In recent months that statement transitioned into the need to decide the project’s fate by April.
But progress has been slow despite help from the state Legislature in approving a measure to send any TMT appeal straight to the Supreme Court.
A contested case replay, ordered by the high court for a violation of due process, dragged on for months. The case has since been appealed to the Supreme Court — and so has another challenge to the project’s sublease. Both cases are now pending at the court.
In the Canary Islands, meanwhile, the proposal’s environmental review process continues with a public comment period expected to extend into the summer.
University of Hawaii spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said the university would welcome a postponement of the TMT decision.
“Things appear to be moving in the court here,” he said, adding that public support for the project has never been greater.
Richard Naiwieha Wurdeman, attorney for the Mauna Kea Hui petitioners, said that if the Spanish news sources are correct, it represents “ once again another unmet and self- serving deadline in a long series of never-ending changes to self-imposed deadlines by the foreign partners of TMT.”
“The foreign partners of TMT (the governments of China, Canada, Japan and India as well as the University of California and the California Institute of Technology) need to quit playing charades with the people of Hawaii,” Wurdeman said in an email.
“As a result of these self-serving and unmet deadlines that have been imposed by the foreign partners of TMT, the Legislature already has been distracted once again in working on legislation dealing with Mauna Kea when it could have been more focused on issues this session involving homelessness, domestic violence, education, and other critical issues facing our community,”
HOUSE BILL 1585
The state Senate is scheduled to vote today on a bill that could further stall the project.
House Bill 1585 has been reworked by Kahele to prohibit new construction on Mauna Kea until the University of Hawaii complies with tasks outlined in the bill and the state auditor completes a series of audits.
The bill calls for a financial audit of UH Hilo’s Office of Mauna Kea Management, which manages day-to-day operations of the science reserve atop the mountain; a performance audit of observatory support services; a performance audit to determine whether researchers have secured patents from ground-based astronomical observations and discoveries; and an audit of the management structure of the agencies and entities that have jurisdiction over Mauna Kea.
The proposal has not had a public hearing because the contents of the bill were slipped into an unrelated bill that initially would have provided funding for support staff in UH’s capital improvements office.
If the Senate votes to advance HB 1585, negotiators for the House and Senate would still need to meet to hammer out the differences between each chamber’s draft of the bill.
Kahele said the idea for a construction ban came out of community presentations that he’s been hosting across the state. He said he regrets that the proposal wasn’t introduced earlier in the session and that the public hasn’t had an opportunity to testify on it.
“In this instance, it was the only available method and procedural tool that I had,” Kahele said. “Regarding the why, the why is because this is a result of community feedback, and I made a personal promise to individuals I talked to, to honor and implement any solid, constructive legislative ideas that were offered.”
He said he supports the project, but believes there is “deep mistrust and in some cases resentment” harbored against UH and the Department of Land and Natural Resources over stewardship of the mountain.
“For people who say I’m against the Thirty Meter Telescope, that’s the farthest thing from the truth,” Kahele said. “I support astronomy. I support international partnerships. I support education and career pathways for our children. But I want the assurance that this is going to be successful. … When you rush, when you’re not patient, you’re not pono in the community, I think we’re setting ourselves up for failure.”
“I have no dog in this fight,” he added. “I’m a Native Hawaiian who loves my state and loves my aina and just wants things to be done the right way. … If status quo is going to continue, then status quo must be held accountable.”
But Meisenzahl said a construction moratorium is the last thing the TMT project needs right now.
“It sends the wrong message to TMT — or anyone who wants to do business in the state,” he said.