Hawaii Supreme Court Rescinds Permit to Build Thirty Meter Telescope

Protesters blocked vehicles headed for the telescope’s groundbreaking ceremony on Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawaii, in October 2014. (PHOTO CREDIT: Hawaii Tribune-Herald, via Associated Press)
Protesters blocked vehicles headed for the telescope’s groundbreaking ceremony on Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawaii, in October 2014. (PHOTO CREDIT: Hawaii Tribune-Herald, via Associated Press)

The State Supreme Court has rescinded the construction permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope, a $1.4 billion observatory planned for the state’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea, a revered symbol in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.

With the court’s ruling, the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corporation and its board will have to start the permit process over — or, in the words of Deborah Ward, one of those who had challenged the permit in court, “take their toys and play in another sandbox.”

In a Twitter message, the telescope consortium said, “This is not a judgment against T.M.T., but rather against the state’s process in granting the permits.”

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.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Dennis Overbye

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