Artist's impression of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
Courtesy TMT International Observatory

After contentious hearings, stalled Hawaiian telescope might have new life

After months of testimony, a former state judge has recommended that Hawaii officials provide a key permit needed to start construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop Mauna Kea. It’s a step back on track for the project, which has drawn fierce opposition from Native Hawaiians and was placed in limbo in late 2015 as a result of a decision by the Hawaiian Supreme Court.

The 26 July recommendation, from retired judge Riki May Amano to the state’s Board of Land and Natural Resources, marks the conclusion of more than 40 days of sometime contentious hearings, held after the Supreme Court concluded that the original permit process was flawed. But the TMT project still has some way to go before it can restart. The state land board must hold more hearings before making a final decision. And TMT opponents say that if that board grants the permit, they will return to court to try to block it. Meanwhile, a separate proceedings, challenging a TMT lease, is ongoing.

TMT officials have said that they will move the telescope—which would be one of the world’s largest and most powerful land-based instruments—to an alternate site at La Palma in the Canary Islands if they are not able to start construction in Hawaii by April 2018. But in a statement yesterday, TMT Executive Director Ed Stone said he was pleased with the decision. “We respectfully look forward to the next steps,” he said.

Officials with the University of Hawaii, which holds the master lease on Mauna Kea and was a party in the hearing, were also pleased by the decision.

TMT opponents were disappointed but not surprised. Some charged that Amano was biased in favor of the telescope. “It’s really hard to convince us that she gave [the case] the due diligence that it deserves,” says Kealoha Pisciotta, who participated in the hearings both as an individual and as president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, an organization of Hawaiian cultural practitioners.

Lanny Sinkin, who represented Temple of Lono, a Hawaiian faith group based on Hawaii Island, says TMT opponents will continue to challenge the project. “This is far from over,” he says.

Amano recommended that any permit carry numerous conditions. They include requiring TMT employees to attend cultural and natural resources training, implementing an invasive species control program on the telescope site, and providing $1 million a year for a “community benefits package,” including local science education and workforce development programs. TMT has said its plan already includes many of the recommended actions.

State officials say they are reviewing the recommendation, with an eye toward setting a timeline for next steps.