The University of Hawaii plans to swiftly begin construction on a cutting-edge solar telescope atop Haleakala Volcano on Maui following a long-awaited ruling by the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources that reaffirms approval of a critical permit.
In a contested case that has dragged on for two years, the board ruled that the university’s conservation district use permit was properly granted in 2010 despite a challenge by Kilakila O Haleakala, a Native Hawaiian group that is represented by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation. The group has protested the telescope on cultural, spiritual and environmental grounds.
UH’s Institute of Astronomy has fretted openly about the potential loss of $146 million in federal stimulus funds — half the cost of the project — if the telescope doesn’t break ground soon. The funds must be expended by September 2015 or be lost, according to Kelli Trifonovitch, a spokeswoman for UH.
She said that construction would begin as soon as possible and is expected to be completed in five to seven years. Delays have been costing taxpayers $750,000 a month — the cost to maintain the stagnant project, said Trifonovitch.
The university is partnering with the National Science Foundation and a consortium of universities on the project. The telescope will be the largest of its kind and allow astrophysicists to study solar wind and solar flares and their impacts on Earth’s climate, according to UH. It will be built in “Science City,” where 10 other science facilities are located.
But while university officials are cheering the decision in a case that has been fraught with missteps, the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation has filed a temporary restraining order to prevent construction from beginning. It’s also preparing to appeal the board’s decision in court.
This is an addition to other ongoing legal challenges from the law firm. In one case, the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation is arguing that the state shouldn’t have issued the conservation district use permit in December 2010 before holding the contested case involving Kilakila O Haleakala.
“It’s (akin to) a judge deciding a case, having a trial and then deciding again,” said Camille Kalama, an attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation.
Kalama said that the law firm would appeal the state’s decision on the basis that the telescope violates the rules of a conservation district because it will have significant impacts on cultural and environmental resources.
The law firm is also considering an appeal based on allegations that Sen. Daniel Inouye’s staff and high-level state officials wrongly pressured a state hearing officer in the case.
“We are very concerned about the record of pressure in this case,” said Sharla Manley, also an attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation. “We are not sure today whether it will be a basis for our appeal.”
Emails obtained in September through a public records lawsuit brought by the law firm show Inouye staff and state officials were working to ensure that the project gets built.
Inouye, a champion of the science and technology sector in Hawaii, has long supported the telescope. His staff members have repeatedly declined to respond directly to the allegations.
Trifonovitch said that university officials overseeing the case could not be available for an interview and declined to comment on the legal challenges to the project.
“If Kilakila files anything, we will let the legal responses speak for themselves in this case,” she said.
Kalama said the state’s decision was obviously a disappointment.
“Haleakala is a wahi pana — it’s one of the most sacred sites on Maui,” she said.