MAUNA KEA, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - Thirty-Meter Telescope project officials say they're beginning to review possible sites outside Hawaii, and say they could pull out of the state if they don't get a clear path to approval soon.
In December, after months of TMT construction delays due to protests, the state Supreme Court invalidated a permit for the Mauna Kea project because the state issued it improperly.
The case is now heading back to the state Land Board, and TMT officials say without a clear timeline, they have to start looking at plan B – leaving Hawaii.
"I think that the partners all felt that we needed to develop alternatives so we had some option if in fact it turns out that it is not feasible on a timely basis to develop the telescope in Hawaii," said Ed Stone, TMT executive director.
Opponents of the project, meanwhile, accuse TMT of bluffing to pressure the governor.
Mauna Kea Hui spokeswoman Kealoha Pisciotta says her group is seeking extended hearings at the Land Board, and might even challenge Mauna Kea's underlying management plan, a move that could add years – not months – to any construction timeline.
"I do think it could take anywhere from two to five years to get through it all because we are going to require every possible approval," she said.
That kind of uncertainty is why TMT is looking for other places to build.
Stone said the project needs a "timely permit." He'd like to have one in hand by the end of this year or early 2017.
"We have a deadline just because we have been at this for eight years and at some point we have to realize whether we have an objective in sight or not," he said. "We want to develop our alternative in parallel so that we have off ramps if necessary."
Stone is not offering a specific deadline, but says with each fiscal year it becomes more likely one of the international partners -- especially Canada or Japan -- will move their money from the $1.4 billion project.
Stone says the work of looking at alternatives will begin soon.
But he said announcing that effort is not an effort to pressure Hawaii, which remains the first choice.
"We should be able to have a clear path with the alternative," he said. "We are hoping to have a clear path to Hawaii."
TMT officials say they've spent more than $170 million the project so far, but much of that isn't site-specific. That means the amount lost if the project were to leave Hawaii would be much lower.
But onlookers are likely to point out TMT's departure would have a significant impact on Hawaii's business community, and could deter future development.