After often-emotional hearing, telescope decision is up to state land board

Honolulu Start Advertiser By Timothy Hurley
September 21, 2017

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Members of the crowd cheer while Mehana Kihoi gives an oral argument against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope as the Hawaii State Board of Land and Natural Resources hears arguments for and against building the giant telescope on a mountain some consider sacred Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, in Hilo, Hawaii.

HILO >> The fate of the Thirty Meter Telescope is in the hands of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources following a lengthy and sometimes emotional final hearing Wednesday to conclude the project’s contested case proceeding.

Several hundred people filled the Crown Room at the Grand Naniloa Hotel to witness the oral arguments while sign-carrying anti-TMT demonstrators lined Banyan Drive leading to the hotel.

Following the seven-hour meeting, the board said it would make its decision at an unspecified later date.

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At stake is construction of one of the world’s largest telescopes, an 18-story structure scheduled to be among the next generation of elite ground-based observatories designed to see farther into the universe than ever before.

In July, contested case hearings officer Riki May Amano recommended approval of the project’s construction permit after reviewing the evidence accumulated over a hearing that lasted 44 days over several months and produced about 800 exhibits and more than 550 documents.

The $1.4 billion project has pitted those who believe the telescope will desecrate the Mauna Kea summit held sacred by some Native Hawaiians against those who believe it will offer important economic and educational opportunities.

Those same battle lines were drawn Wednesday, although the chorus of those who object to the TMT was heard more loudly as 19 of the 23 contested case parties are opposed to the $1.4 billion telescope.

When Land Board Chairwoman Suzanne Case gaveled the proceeding to order, anti-TMT forces in the audience, many of them Native Hawaiian, sang “E Ho Mai,” the traditional chant for Mauna Kea. Applause and a conch shell blast followed the testimony of many of the parties opposed to the telescope.

While the arguments Wednesday reflected many of the same points made over the course of the hearing, several of the intervenors requested that any approved permit be put on hold pending an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Decision awaited

They said they don’t want a repeat of the previous TMT approval, when the developer attempted to start construction only to be stopped by the high court, which eventually ruled that the board committed a due process error when it approved the project prior to holding the original 2011 contested case hearing.

Others suggested the meeting was a waste of time.

“As far as I’m concerned, this case has already been decided behind closed doors,” Mehana Kihoi declared.

Board member James Gomes of Maui later denied any decision was already made. “That’ll never happen on my watch,” he said.

A few intervenors said that if the project is approved, they will be compelled to return to the mountain and risk arrest to prevent construction.

“I’m going to lay my body down in front of these guys until somebody pays attention and listens. And I know I’m not going to be the only one,” William Freitas said.

Afterward, Dan Meisenzahl, spokesman for applicant University of Hawaii, issued this statement: “We made our case. We are confident that it showed that we met the eight criteria required for a conservation district use permit and we look forward to the decision by the land board.

“The university will continue to build on the great work by the Maunakea Management Board, Office of Maunakea Management and Kahu Ku Mauna advisory board over the last 17 years.

“We know there is a lot of work to do and as the Board of Regents affirmed in a resolution adopted in August, we are committed to collaborative stewardship with all stakeholders of Maunakea’s cultural, natural, educational and scientific resources.”

Opposing views

Earlier, attorneys for UH-Hilo and developer TMT International Observatory told the board that exhaustive studies and environmental planning have proven that the project more than satisfies requirements for construction on the mountaintop.

In addition, UH-Hilo attorney John P. Manaut said the university is continuously striving to improve its management of the mountain and has agreed to remove three of the existing 13 telescopes, resulting in a overall reduction in impact.

Manaut added that significant steps were taken in design of the telescope to reduce its size and impact on the natural resources of the summit.

But the anti-TMT parties said the huge telescope would interfere with cultural practices, degrade the environment and mar a sacred landscape. They said the applicant failed to meet the criteria required for construction in the conservation district.

The intervenors also complained about being unfairly treated by Amano, a former Hawaii island circuit judge.

Mauna Kea Hui leader Kealoha Pisciotta said Amano failed to rule on every finding of fact submitted by the parties, as required. Instead, she rejected hundreds of findings by simply ignoring them.

Lanny Sinkin, attorney for petitioner Temple of Lono, told the board that Amano committed hundreds of due process violations. “There is no doubt in my mind that this proceeding will not ultimately result in the TMT receiving a permit,” he said.