By PETER SUR
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The Thirty Meter Telescope, in limbo for more than a year, moved a huge step closer to approval with the release Friday of a long-awaited hearing officer’s report in support of the University of Hawaii’s request to build the giant observatory.
The state Board of Natural Resources will hear a final round of arguments at a meeting Jan. 30 in Hilo, but a decision is not likely at that time.
A year and two months after hearing officer Paul Aoki concluded his contested case hearing with UH and opponents of telescope development on Mauna Kea, Aoki released his report Friday.
The 126-page decision recommends the approval of the $1.3 billion TMT, which would be one of the world’s most powerful optical/infrared telescope, if not the world’s most powerful, when it takes in its first light around the turn of the decade.
“Based on the foregoing,” Aoki summarizes at the end of his report, “the (Conservation District Use Application is GRANTED, and a Conservation District Use Permit is issued” subject to certain conditions.
“It’s a positive report, so we’re very happy to have it,” said Sandra Dawson, the TMT’s on-site manager. She said the telescope corporation, an association of research universities and governments in California, Canada, Japan, India and China, would comply with all the conditions in Aoki’s report.
Deborah Ward, one of the petitioners against the BLNR, said she would have to read the document carefully before making a statement.
The next step is that both sides will be able to file written disagreements, also known as exceptions, to the hearing officer’s recommendation, and to respond to each other’s briefs.
Then, on Jan. 30, beginning at 11 a.m. in the Hawaii County Council chambers, the BLNR will entertain oral arguments by both sides for no more than 30 minutes per side, according to an order filed by the board. The general public will not be allowed to testify, because only the parties involved to Aoki’s report will be permitted to argue their exceptions before the board.
Following that, the board will take the arguments under advisement and will make a closed-door decision in the future. There is no deadline for the Land Board to issue its final decision, a DLNR spokeswoman said.
Whichever side loses has the option of appealing to 3rd Circuit Court, and opponents have in the past indicated they would do that if the ruling were in favor of the University of Hawaii.
Although Aoki’s report is not the final word, the contested case hearing was by far the biggest hurdle to date for the TMT, which had to survive multiple rounds of objections over the approval of the Mauna Kea Comprehensive Management Plan, the approval of the TMT’s environmental impact statement and UH’s own approval process.
In brief, Aoki found that the TMT project satisfied all eight criteria necessary for the granting of a CDUP, and he supported most of the arguments advanced by UH that the project’s impacts could be mitigated.
“The TMT Project has the potential to substantially benefit the public welfare,” Aoki wrote. “There will be direct economic benefits through construction contracts, new jobs, incoming research grants, provision of the (Community Benefits Package) and (Workforce Pipeline Program), and substantial educational benefits. There is also the less tangible but no less important benefit of increasing humanity’s overall pool of knowledge about the Universe and our origins.”
The report also dismisses the arguments raised by the petitioners, who in addition to Ward are KAHEA, Paul Neves, Clarence Kukauakahi Ching, Mauna Kea Anaina Hou and the family of E. Kalani Flores and B. Pua Case.
KAHEA spokeswoman Bianca Isaki declined to comment pending a conference with the petitioners.
“Petitioners … testified to contemporary cultural practices relating to viewplanes from Mauna Kea,” the report states. “However, they either did not identify themselves as engaging in those practices, and/or their testimony did not identify how the TMT Project would actually interfere with anyone carrying out those practices. … The reliable, substantial and credible evidence demonstrates that the TMT Project will not result in any substantial adverse impact on the cultural practices of the community or state or Native Hawaiian traditional and customary practices on Mauna Kea.”
The report continues to state several more times that the petitioners submitted no evidence to support their claims of environmental degradation.
The BLNR had already granted approval of the TMT’s CDUP at its meeting in Honolulu on Feb. 25, 2011, but at that same meeting it had moved to order a contested case hearing and ordered that no construction begin on the site until the conclusion of that process.
Tim Lui-Kwan, a Carlsmith Ball attorney who represented UH in its appearance before the hearing officer, was optimistic.
“We still have to review the full findings,” he said. “Obviously, we agree with the decision and we’re reviewing the conditions, but it looks like a very thorough and very well-documented proposed finding.”
Asked whether UH will submit any exceptions to the decision, Lui-Kwan declined to say. “But it looks like the hearing officer worked very hard at it,” he said.
Aoki attached a long list of conditions to the project, including requirements that TMT establish, among other things, an annual mandatory cultural and natural resources training; an invasive species control program, a habitat restoration study; a “zero waste management” policy; ride-sharing; the use of energy-saving devices; and that the observatory corporation pay a “substantial” amount for sublease rent.
The TMT has been hailed by an unlikely coalition of astronomers, community business organizations and political leaders in the federal, state and county governments. It has been opposed by environmentalists and Hawaiian rights activists, who feared the development of the telescope could endanger the precious natural and cultural resources atop Hawaii’s tallest mountain.
Email Peter Sur at email@example.com.