Hawaiian court rescinds building permit for Thirty Meter Telescope
The Hawaii State Supreme Court has rescinded the construction permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope over cultural concerns.
IMAGE: Protesters blocked vehicles headed for the Thirty Meter Telescope’s groundbreaking ceremony on Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawaii, in October 2014. (Image credit: Hawaii Tribune-Herald, via Associated Press)
The Hawaii State Supreme Court has rescinded the construction permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope, a $1.4 billion observatory planned for the state's tallest mountain, Mauna Kea, a revered symbol in Hawaiian culture. Construction of the telescope, an international collaboration led by the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, had been stalled since April, when protesters blocked crews from the site.
According to the decision handed down Wednesday afternoon, the state's Board of Land and Natural Resources failed to follow due process by approving the permit in 2011 before a contested case hearing. "If the process has no integrity, neither will the outcome," said Kealoha Pisciotta, a spokeswoman for Mauna Kea Hui, the group that brought the suit.
The telescope, which would be larger than any now on earth, is designed to study planets around distant stars and tune into the birth of galaxies at the dawn of time. Mauna Kea is widely considered the best stargazing spot on the planet.
The mountain, however, is also a state-designated conservation district. Opponents of the project have contended that the planned telescope, which at 18 stories high would be the biggest building on the Big Island, is industrial development and would violate the rules for such zones. In 2005, a court-ordered environmental impact statement concluded that 30 years of astronomy had had an adverse effect on nature and culture on the mountain.
Later, Henry Yang, chairman of the telescope's board, said in a statement: "T.M.T. will follow the process set forth by the state, as we always have. We are assessing our next steps on the way forward." The telescope board is scheduled to meet again in February but could convene earlier.
In a statement, officials at the University of Hawaii, which held the permit and leased the land to the telescope project, said the university was reviewing the court decision and "continues to believe that Mauna Kea is a precious resource where science and culture can synergistically coexist."
A similar thing happened 10 years ago, when a permit was rescinded for a pair of "outrigger" telescopes that had been proposed to accompany the huge twin telescopes of the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea. The withdrawal of the permit was a result of lawsuits brought by the same group. The outriggers were never built.
There are presently 13 telescopes on the mountain. In May, Gov. David Ige announced that construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope could go on, but called for the removal of at least three of the existing telescopes.
Soon after, however, protesters again prevented construction crews from going to the summit, and several were arrested. The telescope group said it would stand down until further notice. In return for an agreement that they be notified when construction was about to start again, the protesters abandoned an encampment at the Mauna Kea visitors center. In November, the telescope group announced plans to send a crew to the summit again, and protesters began to mobilize. But then the state's Supreme Court, which had been mulling the permit case, issued a stay when it handed down its ruling.
Among astronomers, there is growing anxiety about what failing to build the telescope would mean for astronomy in Hawaii. "Mauna Kea is the flagship of American and international astronomy," said Doug Simons, director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea. "We are on the precipice of losing this cornerstone of U.S. prestige." He called that possibility "a catastrophic loss for science."