The Thirty Meter Telescope may be headed for another Mauna Kea showdown after the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the $1.4 billion project Tuesday.
The same people who mobilized to block the Big Island project three years ago are vowing to make another stand on the mountain.
“We have no other option but to resist,” said Kaho‘okahi Kanuha, one of the leaders of the largely Native Hawaiian “protectors” during the 2015 protests. “The decision is in our own hands, to determine whether to let this happen. It looks like we have to step back in time to 2015.”
In a 73-page ruling, the high court affirmed 4-1 the state Board of Land and Natural Resources’ decision to issue a construction permit for the project expected to be the largest and most powerful of the community of telescopes on the mountain when it becomes operational in 2029.
The decision to issue the conservation district use permit had been appealed by TMT opponents.
On Tuesday the high court ruled that the board properly applied the law in making its 2017 determination, and the justices rejected all of the due process issues that project opponents presented, including the argument that contested case hearing officer Riki May Amano was biased.
Associate Justice Michael Wilson was the lone dissenter, and Associate Justice Richard Pollack wrote a separate opinion disagreeing with the way the court majority justified its decision. In the end, Pollack agreed with the majority opinion written by Associate Justice Sabrina McKenna.
While state and University of Hawaii officials cheered the ruling, the project’s courtroom challengers said they would be meeting to consider what to do next, including the possibility of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I’m very disappointed — disappointed doesn’t even cover it,” said Mauna Kea Hui spokesperson Kealoha Pisciotta. “By natural law and the preponderance of the evidence, we should have won.”
Pisciotta said the group has other options apart from the U.S. Supreme Court, but she wouldn’t say what they are.
In a statement, Henry Yang, chairman of the TMT International Observatory Board of Governors, said, “We are excited to move forward in Hawaii and will continue to respect and follow state and county regulations, as we determine our next steps.
“We remain committed to being good stewards on the mountain and inclusive of the Hawaiian community. We will honor the culture of the islands and its people and do our part to contribute to its future through our ongoing support of education and Hawaii Islands’ young people.”
TMT Hawaii spokesman Scott Ishikawa said it is unclear when the project might resume construction.
“I think a lot of it is going to depend on fulfilling the requirements of that state conservation district use permit,” he said. “There are numerous conditions and requirements that have got to be met before the start of construction, so the timing of that is probably going to determine our timeline.”
It is also unclear how long it would take contractors to mobilize for the initial groundbreaking site construction, he said.
If protesters try block the project, “we hope to have the state and county’s assurance in providing safe passage for our workers,” he said.
At a news conference Tuesday, Gov. David Ige repeated his pledge to ensure the rights of both protesters and the TMT.
Asked how far he would go to ensure construction access and whether that might include calling in the National Guard, Ige repeated his commitment to upholding rights.
“I am committed to assuring that the rights of the project and the permitee to proceed with the project is enforceable, so whatever that means,” he said.
Board of Land and Natural Resources Chairwoman Suzanne Case said the next step would begin once the applicant submits construction plans to the state Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands.
After a review for consistency with permit conditions and adherence to the Maunakea Comprehensive Management Plan, which, among other things, requires control of invasive species and attention to cultural protocols and training, a notice to proceed can be issued, she said.
Meanwhile, several “protectors” went on social media to express their disappointment and rally their supporters.
“Time to dance. We will overcome settlerism,” tweeted UH Maui College Hawaiian studies professor Kaleikoa Ka‘eo, who was among 12 arrested in April 2015 as part of a successful attempt to block vehicles from reaching the construction site near the summit.
“See you on the Mauna,” added Hawane Rios, a Big Island entertainer who was arrested on the mountain in June 2015.
Kanuha said the protesters would continue to follow the “kapu aloha” protocol of nonviolent resistance that was used effectively three years ago.
In a statement, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs said the Supreme Court’s ruling demonstrates an urgent need for the state to create mechanisms to ensure that constitutionally protected traditional and customary practices and cultural resources are not sacrificed or abridged.
House Speaker Scott Saiki urged officials to help make the project work for everyone.
“Now that the Supreme Court has ruled, it is incumbent upon government agencies, and particularly the University of Hawaii, to reconcile culture and science. In this modern day, we can have both. The entire world will benefit from our astronomy program,” Saiki said.
UH President David Lassner said the university, which is the TMT permit holder, will ensure that the project is accomplished “appropriately and with deepest respect for the awesomeness of Mauna Kea.”
“TMT will not only represent a major advance in humankind’s knowledge of the universe, it will have tremendously positive educational and economic impacts for the people of Hawaii island and the entire state. UH stands fully committed to collaborative stewardship that demonstrates Maunakea as an inspiring and harmonious global model for culture, education, the environment and groundbreaking scientific discovery,” he said.
In a statement, Doug Simons of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, said the cutting-edge telescope will not only lead to scientific discovery, it will also offer local opportunities.
“We look forward to working collaboratively with TMT as they help create widespread economic benefits for Hawaii island and the state,” he said.
The TMT, meanwhile, still maintains its contingency plan for moving the project to the Canary Islands if need be.
“If, for whatever reason, Mauna Kea still ends up being unfeasible for building TMT, Canary Islands has always been a plan B,” Ishikawa said.
Hawaii Supreme Court Opinion on TMT by Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Scribd
Hawaii Supreme Court Opinion on Thirty Meter Telescope by Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Scribd
Star-Advertiser staff writer Kevin Dayton contributed to this report.