HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - After years of legal wrangling and protests, the Thirty Meter Telescope got a green light Tuesday from the state Supreme Court.
In a 4-to-1 decision, the state’s highest court ruled in favor of the telescope’s construction atop Mauna Kea, effectively ending all legal avenues for contesting the controversial project unless the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the case.
In a statement, TMT International Observatory Board of Governors Chairman Henry Yang said the body is “grateful” for the ruling and “committed to being good stewards on the mountain.”
“We are excited to move forward in Hawaii and will continue to respect and follow state and county regulations, as we determine our next steps,” Yang said. "We are deeply grateful to our many friends and supporters for their tremendous support over the years.”
Officials did not say when construction of the telescope — which will be one of the world’s largest — might start atop Mauna Kea, but have previously said elements of the TMT have been fabricated off-site.
In a news conference Tuesday, Gov. David Ige said he’s pleased with the ruling and “is committed to making sure everyone’s rights are protected,” including those of protesters.
In a moderated forum at the University of Hawaii Center for Hawaiian Studies, candidates for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs were asked their stance on the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope and why.
William Aila explained why as Chair of the Department of Land and Natural Resources he approved the permits for it; but the crowd, didn’t want to hear it.
Aila said he believes science and Hawaiian culture can co-exist atop Mauna Kea.
But in 2015, many were arrested while blocking construction crews from what they considered a sacred Native Hawaiian space.
Andre Perez was one of them and he said, "It was difficult. It was emotional, it was disheartening to see our people getting arrested and dragged off the mountain but we know that is the sacrifice that is necessary and we’re prepared to do that again if necessary.”
Kahookahi Kanuha headed the Aloha Aina movement and vows to continue it.
“When it happens that will be largely determined by TMT and the timeline they put forward and whether or not they choose to communicate this timeline to the public. But there will be resistance," said Kahookahi Kanuha.
The activist called the decision disappointing but added that it didn’t come as a surprise.
“They don’t have the ability to uphold the rights of Kanaka, of Hawaiians," said Kanuha. "To protect our sacred places and our sacred sites. And to legitimately respect and recognize Hawaiians, their culture, their values, their believes, their language and their history as one that’s just as real as theirs.”
University of Hawaii Hawaiian Studies professor, Lilikala Kame’eleihiwa said, “When I read this morning the Supreme Court of injustices decision, I feel like it’s one of the saddest days in the history of the Hawaiian people.”
Among those who opposed the project was the Sierra Club’s Moku Loa group, which said in a statement Tuesday that the court’s “decision to override the constitutional protections for native Hawaiian practitioners exercising their customary and traditional religious practices on land never ceded to the state is a failure of the rule of law.”
The 73-page ruling affirmed the state Land Board’s 2017 decision to issue a conservation district use permit for the telescope. In its majority opinion, the court said the state followed the law in approving the project.
“TMT is an advanced world-class telescope designed to investigate and answer some of the most fundamental questions regarding our universe, including the formation of stars and galaxies after the Big Bang and how the universe evolved to its present form. Native Hawaiians will also be included in other direct benefits from the TMT,” the court wrote.
“Thus, use of the land by TMT is consistent with conservation and in furtherance of the self-sufficiency of the state,” the court continued.
Associate Justice Richard Pollack, in a concurring opinion, wrote that while he is concerned about how the Land Board interpreted elements of the law he believes that the body “largely fulfilled their obligations.”
“Despite the Board’s misapprehension as to what may constitute an appropriate mitigation action, substantial evidence was introduced that true mitigation measures will be undertaken that are sufficient to offset the harm from the project on public trust purposes,” Pollack wrote.
“Considered together, these measures indicate that UH sufficiently carried its obligation to demonstrate that damage to public trust purposes will be offset by the implementation of reasonable mitigation measures,” Pollack continued.
The sole dissenting opinion came from Associate Justice Michael Wilson.
The court heard arguments in the case over the summer, with the project’s supporters and opponents packing the courtroom. Native Hawaiian protesters broke out into chant before the start of the hearing, in which their attorneys argued that the 18-story, $1.4 billion structure will further desecrate land they consider sacred.
Supporters of the project, though, said that the telescope’s construction impacts to Mauna Kea would be mitigated and that the benefits of the project far outweigh any negative consequences to the environment.
The Thirty Meter Telescope project was first announced in 2009, as part of a new class of very large telescopes designed to spy farther into space and millions of years back in time, to when the first stars and galaxies were formed in the universe.
But opposition to TMT was immediate — and remains strong, raising questions about whether future protests might block construction vehicles seeking access to the mountain.
TMT will now have to submit it’s construction plans to the land board for review and approval — a process that can take up to two years.
Once the plan is approved, a notice to proceed will be granted and construction can begin.
“I think the lesson out of all this is Mauna Kea is everyone’s mountain,” said Scott Ishikawa, a spokesman for TMT. “Everyone want to keep it special I think and everyone has responsibility for taking care of it.”
The construction permit comes with dozens of conditions that have to be met — including cultural training for staff and the removal of some existing telescopes.
This story will be updated.
This story will be updated.