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Revoking the TMT Permits Would Be a Huge Mistake
The Thirty Meter Telescope Corp. bent over backwards to address project concerns. But the University of Hawaii's lease renewal on the site needs more discussion.

About the Author

  • Aaron Stene
    Aaron Stene
    Aaron Stene is interested in transportation infrastructure and resides in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island.

I’ve followed the Thirty Meter Telescope public vetting process over the past seven years; the unprecedented public protests against this project caused me to write this commentary.

The public had equal opportunity to give comments about this telescope project. It underwent an extended contested case hearing process before the Board of Land and Natural Resources granted the conservation district use permit in 2013. In addition, Gov. Linda Lingle accepted the Final Environmental Impact Statement in 2010. There was a 60-day window to contest the FEIS after acceptance. No one stepped forward to do so during that window.

The hearing officer determined the Thirty Meter Telescope met all eight criteria to be developed in the conservation district. In addition, he noted that Hawaii Administrative Rules 13-5-24c permits the construction of astronomy facilities in the conservation district, as long there is a management plan in place.

Thirty Meter Telescope Mauna Kea top view

An artists’ depiction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea as seen from above.

Courtesy TMT International Observatory

In short, the Thirty Meter Telescope Corp. has bent over backward to address all concerns about their project over the last seven years. This is why it would be huge mistake to revoke their vested permits after they’ve been granted. The TMT relied on these permits to start construction on their telescope.

The possible revocation of their legally obtained permits would bring up eerie parallels to the Hokuli’a project in South Kona. There, Judge Ronald Ibarra invalidated Hokuli’a permits after four years of construction and after Oceanside spent $350 million on their project. However, the big difference between these two projects is the fact that TMT followed the law when obtaining their entitlements, while Oceanside (Hokuli’a) did not.

Judge Ibarra placed an injunction on Hokuli’a project for 2.5 years until a settlement agreement allowed construction to resume in 2006. I foresee a similar scenario happening with the TMT project. The Mauna Kea stakeholders need to reach a global settlement that would allow construction to resume on this telescope.

The Mauna Kea Comprehensive Management Plan contains an excellent framework to get this process started. For example, the TMT would be the last new telescope on Mauna Kea. All new telescope projects after the TMT would recycle existing sites. However, I believe any global settlement needs to go further.

The University of Hawaii needs to indefinitely delay attempts to extend the master lease for the science reserve, which expires in 2033. More discussion between all stakeholders is necessary before this proposal moves forward. Without that, the university risks turning an ugly situation into something uglier.

The University of Hawaii and the other owners of the Mauna Kea telescopes should reevaluate the telescope decommissioning plan for the science reserve area. The Hawaii Tribune Herald reported the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope, James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and Very Low Baseline Array are facing possible decommissioning before the Mauna Kea science reserve master lease expires in 2033.  This is on top of the scheduled decommissioning of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory slated to begin 2016.

The university also needs to indefinitely delay any attempts to extend the master lease for the science reserve area. The current lease expires in 2033, which means all telescopes on Mauna Kea face decommissioning between 2025 and 2033.

The university naturally wants the lease extended another 65 years. I believe more discussion between all Mauna Kea stakeholders is necessary before this proposal moves forward. If this doesn’t happen, the university risks turning an ugly situation into something uglier.

Mauna Kea’s telescopes have contributed $92 million of direct economic impact in Hawaii County per year. This figure cannot be understated. If all the Mauna Kea telescopes were removed, it would be a huge economic hit to this island.

This is another reason why all the Mauna Kea stakeholders need to come to together and discuss a mutually agreeable plan for Mauna Kea’s future. These discussions need to occur in a face-to-face environment and not through social media. The latter has poisoned all civil discussion regarding the Thirty Meter Telescope project and future of Mauna Kea.