BARCELONA, Spain — The director of a Spanish research center said Monday that the international consortium that wants to build a giant telescope on Hawaii’s tallest peak despite protests from Native Hawaiians has decided to seek a building permit for an alternative site in the Canary Islands.
Canary Islands Astrophysics Institute Director Rafael Rebolo told The Associated Press that he received a letter from the head of the Thirty Meter Telescope project saying its board recently decided “to proceed with the request to seek a building permit” for the island of La Palma.
However, Rebolo insisted the consortium that already obtained a permit in Hawaii still plans to put the $1.4 billion telescope on the top of Mauna Kea.
Some Native Hawaiians consider the Big Island mountain sacred, and protesters are in their fourth week of blocking access to Mauna Kea’s summit to prevent construction.
“We are observing what is happening in Hawaii with the maximum respect,” Rebolo, the point man for the alternative site in Spain’s Canary Islands, said.
“Our position is that we are here if the TMT project needs us,” he said in a telephone interview from the institute’s headquarters on the island of Tenerife.
Scientists selected Mauna Kea’s summit for the giant telescope because the weather and air conditions there are among the best in the world for viewing the skies.
The Hawaii Supreme Court last year ruled the international consortium behind the telescope lawfully obtained a permit, clearing the way for the construction.
Separately, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources granted a two-year extension to the deadline for starting construction. The new deadline is Sept. 26, 2021.
Given the opposition of some local residents, the international consortium in October 2016 announced a backup location in the Canary Islands — Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma.
Rebolo said local officials who would have jurisdiction over a La Palma building permit for the new telescope solidly back the project and that the observatory site has already passed environmental impact evaluations.
“Our mountains are not sacred,” he added.
Last week, Spain’s science minister, Pedro Duque, reiterated the government’s full support for the Canary Islands as a Plan B site for the telescope and said the country is well-prepared to host it.
“We have all the necessary plans at all levels — the people, the speed, the systems, absolutely everything is ready if they want to come,” Duque said.
In March 2017, TMT International Observatory signed a 75-year hosting agreement with the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias which would allow the telescope to be built on a 24-acre plot in La Palma. It would also give the institute 10 percent of the viewing time for TMT.
The institute and TMT would not provide Civil Beat with a copy of the hosting agreement.
Last year, TMT also entered into a cooperating agreement between the institute, the La Palma island council and the Spanish government that laid the groundwork for how all the entities would work together on TMT.
The governments, institute and TMT entered another agreement in March to allow the observatory to extend its land to include the parcel where TMT would be built.
The Canary Islands archipelago, located west of Morocco in the eastern Atlantic Ocean, is already home to several powerful telescopes. The Roque de los Muchachos Observatory hosts more than 20.
A Native Hawaiian protest leader called the development regarding the building permit a good sign.
“There’s lots of good science to be done from the Canary Islands,” said Kealoha Pisciotta, who has helped organize the blockade on Mauna Kea. It would “be a win for everyone.”
But the news won’t prompt protesters to stop demonstrations, she said.
Kaho’okahi Kanuha, another protest leader who has been arrested several times trying to block telescope construction on Mauna Kea, said he hopes telescope builders make the “right decision” and move the project to the Canary Islands.
“We remain committed to protecting Mauna Kea from further desecration, no matter how long it takes,” he said.
The Spanish government has been helping TMT get on the fast track in case project leaders bail out of building on Mauna Kea.
A white paper by M3 Engineering and Technology Corp., the company contracted by TMT for site development, says that both the Mauna Kea site and the site in La Palma, Spain were being developed at the same time.
While it’s about 5,900 feet below the site on Mauna Kea, the La Palma site in the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos could provide close to the same scientific advantages as Mauna Kea, according to technical reports.
Alternative sites included two in Chile.
Associated Press writer Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu and Civil Beat reporter Blaze Lovell contributed to this report.
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