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TMT hearing concludes: Decision on contested case could still be months away

Witness testimony in the Thirty Meter Telescope contested case came to a close Thursday, four months after it began.

The extensive hearing received input from 71 witnesses, including Native Hawaiian cultural and religious practitioners, astronomers and government officials, regarding whether to reissue a construction permit to build the giant telescope atop Mauna Kea.

Witness testimony started in October and occurred over 44 days of hearings.

A decision by hearings officer Riki May Amano could still be months away, leaving the $1.4 billion project in limbo a year from a self-imposed construction deadline.

Next, court reporters face an enormous task of completing the written transcript. That could take five to six weeks, said Amano, a retired judge.

Afterward, the parties, which at the start totaled nearly two dozen, will have 30 days to submit their proposed decision, including findings of fact and conclusions of law. Amano said she will finish her decision following a two-week period in which objections to proposed orders can be made.

Scott Ishikawa, a spokesman for TMT International Observatory, said the organization behind the next-generation telescope remains hopeful construction can resume in a year. He couldn’t comment on whether the April 2018 deadline might be extended before relocating to a backup site in the Canary Islands.

The contested case hearing is a replay of an earlier contested case held in 2011, which lasted a brief seven days in comparison, for the project’s Conservation District Use Permit. The state Board of Land and Natural Resources approved the permit, but the state Supreme Court overturned that decision in late 2015 because a vote to approve the permit occurred before the hearing started.

That ruling followed large protests from Hawaiians, some of whom see construction on top of the mountain as desecration of a sacred space.

Some of the protesters, who prefer to be called protectors, joined the quasi-judicial hearing as participants.

That included William Freitas, the final witness and “last pohaku standing,” as TIO attorney Doug Ing affectionately called him.

Freitas helped build two ahu, or stone altars, on the proposed TMT site on the mountain’s northern plateau. He said they were built to offer forgiveness of those who bulldozed the area rather than be an obstruction.

But removing them without approval, Freitas said, would be highly offensive.

“Do not touch this place,” he requested. “Do not move forward on this project.”

Mehana Kihoi, another participant in the contested case, said building the ahu with Freitas and her daughter was one of her most “powerful experiences.”

“I know there will never be a last aloha aina,” she told him.

Other parties included the original six petitioners opposed to the project, a group of Native Hawaiians who support the telescope, TIO and University of Hawaii at Hilo.

The observatory would be among a new generation of powerful telescopes capable of collecting the oldest light in the universe. That includes the James Webb Space Telescope set for launch in 2018.

Thayne Currie, an astronomer with one of the existing telescopes on Mauna Kea, told the Tribune-Herald on Thursday he remained “cautiously optimistic” TMT will be built in Hawaii, rather than the alternative site.

“I think the case for TMT is pretty clear,” he said, after watching the hearings. “And to be honest, it’s stronger than I realized.”

With 13 telescopes currently on the mountain, and three identified for removal, Currie said astronomers realize that there can’t be endless development on Mauna Kea.

“It can’t be a bait and switch,” he said. “Speaking for myself and my co-workers, there’s not the stomach for more telescopes after this. This is it.”

In addition to renewing a construction permit, TIO also needs to regain consent for its sublease to resume building.

In December, Hilo Circuit Court Judge Greg Nakamura ruled that E. Kalani Flores, a cultural practitioner participating in the construction permit contested case, should be given a contested case as he requested for the lease agreement with UH-Hilo.

That decision is being appealed.

As of the end of January, the contested case had cost the state $275,758, according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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