After listening to nearly four hours of testimony, members of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees voted Thursday to rescind their 2009 vote to support building the Thirty Meter Telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea.
However, before passing the resolution they removed wording that said OHA actually opposes the telescope project.
“We are back to square one,” Trustee Peter Apo said. “We want to go back and review the documents.”
Apo said the board’s collective change of heart was prompted by new information it has received since 2009, including a number of issues raised about the management of Mauna Kea — not just TMT.
“This was an opportunity I think for us to try to hit a reset button,” Apo said, “and begin to review and take another look at the public trust responsibility that the state has to Hawaiians and walk that trail again.”
The action is one more indication of the growing Native Hawaiian opposition to the $1.4 billion project, which critics contend would desecrate sacred land. The opposition has led to an indefinite moratorium on TMT construction.
In an online survey of nearly 8,000 people conducted by OHA, 68 percent of Native Hawaiian respondents said that if the agency were to reaffirm its stance supporting placing the TMT on Mauna Kea, they would have a negative view of OHA’s efforts to fulfill its mission to improve the conditions of Native Hawaiians. The survey results were announced at the start of Thursday’s meeting.
Still, it’s unclear if the OHA decision has any practical effect on the project, which gained all the permits and approvals it legally needed during a seven-year process that concluded in 2011.
TMT noted Thursday afternoon that “the action taken today by OHA does not affect TMT’s legal right to move forward with construction at the appropriate time.”
“We are naturally disappointed that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has changed its position on the Thirty Meter Telescope project,” said Henry Yang, chair of the TMT Observatory Board, in a statement. “However, we are by no means discouraged. We must now redouble our commitment to respectfully continuing dialogue and engagement with OHA and all other stakeholders.
That sense of disappointment was also shared by some fighting against the construction of TMT, because OHA did not go so far as to voice opposition for the project.
“If they said they actually oppose it, I think it would have helped because we could have said ‘OHA is not in support of this,'” said Kealoha Pisciotta, a spokeswoman for the protest movement who is also party to lawsuits attempting to block TMT. “What are we saying now? What does it really mean?”
Apo said he hopes the OHA board will draft a resolution stating what its intentions are in the wake of rescinding support for TMT and perhaps lay out an agenda for what issues it wants to engage the state in.
“This is a good step in the right direction,” Lilikala Kame’eleihiwa, UH Hawaiian history professor and director of the Hawaiian Studies Center, said of OHA’s decision. “It’s very clear OHA needed to stop and listen to the Hawaiian people … this is not just about politics. This is about how people feel about that mountain and the sacredness of that mountain.”
Civil Beat reporter Anita Hofschneider contributed to this report.