MAUNA KEA, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources on Thursday approved a permit that will allow construction of the controversial Thirty-Meter Telescope to continue near the summit of Mauna Kea.
In a press release issued Thursday morning, the board announced they had conducted a 5-2 vote that approved the recommendation of retired judge Riki May Amano to allow construction to move forward.
The vote officially approved an application for a Conservation District Use Permit that will allow TMT construction operations.
"This was one of the most difficult decisions this Board has ever made," Board Chair Suzanne Case said in a statement. "The members greatly respected and considered the concerns raised by those opposed to the construction of the Thirty-Meter Telescope at the Mauna Kea Science Reserve."
The controversy over construction of the massive telescope – which was first approved for construction more than four years ago – began dominating headlines in 2015, when a large protest prevented construction by blocking access to Mauna Kea's summit.
Several people were arrested, but the protests at the time were largely considered successful; a temporary stand down on construction was ordered, and before it could continue, the Hawaii Supreme Court revoked the project's permit by saying the DLNR had "put the cart before the horse" by issuing a conservation land use permit prior to hearing objections.
That ruling, issued in December 2015, led to an October re-filing of the permit application process by Thirty-Meter Telescope officials. A contested case hearing, which featured the testimony of 71 people over a five-month period, ended in May.
Judge Amano issued her recommendation in July, and the board is believed to have deliberated over the issue for most of August and September.
A summary of the Board's decision, which accompanied the press release issued on Thursday, systematically addresses many of the issues Native Hawaiian practitioners discussed in their testimony during the contested case hearing.
Board officials say that the telescope "will not pollute groundwater, damage any historic sites, harm rare plants or animals (or) otherwise harm the environment."
Authorities say the project's site is not used for traditional Native Hawaii practices and is not located on the summit ridge, having instead been planned for an area 500 feet lower than the "more culturally important" summit area.
Board members also dismissed the idea that the Thirty-Meter Telescope should not be built because of its size.
"Some native Hawaiians expressed that Mauna Kea is so sacred that the very idea of a large structure is offensive," reads a portion of the summary. "But there are already twelve observatories on Mauna Kea, some of them almost as large as the TMT. They will remain even if the TMT is not built.
"No credible evidence was presented that the TMT would somehow be worse from a spiritual or cultural point of view than the other large observatories," the summary continued.
"To the extent that the belief that Mauna Kea is sacred -- too sacred to allow large structures -- is a religious belief. Under the federal and state constitutions, a group's religious beliefs cannot be given veto power over the use of public land," Case said.
Critics say the process was rushed, biased, and flooded with conflicts of interest and secrecy. They plan to appeal the decision and take their fight directly to the state supreme court.
"That's been the expectation all along -- that whatever decision was made by the land board would result in an appeal," said Hawaii attorney general Doug Chin.
Supporters and protestors are planning their next steps as construction could begin before the supreme court rules.
TMT needs to file for a Notice to Proceed with the state Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands before work can start.
"We are committed to assure and protect the rights of individuals to voice their opinion on the project. At the same time, we are prepared to assure access to those who are permitted to proceed," said Governor David Ige.
When asked why the vote was made in private, AG Chin says because this is a contested case hearing, its not covered by the Sunshine Law, which requires open meetings.