April 1, 2016

No, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) officials were not bluffing. They are indeed on a worldwide hunt to find a backup to Mauna Kea, and sites in India, Chile and the Canary Islands are contenders.

While Plan B has yet to be revealed, the realization that TMT officials are seriously searching for an alternative site for the next- generation telescope should strike fear in state officials, who seem to be dawdling their way to a new contested case hearing. This perceived lack of urgency is unfortunate, when so much is at stake.

In February, TMT executive director Ed Stone sent a clear message: the $1.4 billion project will need assurances from the state that it can obtain a permit for construction on Mauna Kea by the end of this year or early next year, or it will take its telescope to another mountain.

The TMT project was derailed by Native Hawaiian protesters and a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling, and has landed back at the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, which must hold a new contested case hearing.

The board is "close to selecting a hearings officer," a state Attorney General spokesman said. Once a hearings officer is selected, the new hearing can begin.

But no one knows how long this will play out, and weeks went by before the case was sent back to the land board. The state is pushing deadline.

And now, alas, pressure is building.

Media in India, Chile and the Canary Islands have either reported visits by a delegation of TMT officials or announced they are coming. Back in 2009, Cerro Armazones, the mountain in Chile's Atacama Desert, was announced as TMT's runner-up location following a worldwide search, and its 10,000-foot summit has been studied thoroughly by TMT officials.

A TMT spokesman said this week that Hawaii's tallest mountain at 13,796 feet is still the project's first choice, but several alternative sites are being eyed. TMT's Facebook page recently featured pictures of a fact-finding trip to an observatory site at La Palma in the Canary Islands.

The state must do everything possible - within the bounds of proper process, of course - to ensure that it does not lose the TMT to another site. Such a monumental loss would signal to the world that Hawaii is not the place to build, let alone do business.

No one can blame Stone and the TMT International Observatory Board for considering the next option. They've already spent several years and $170 million getting ready to build and thought construction was imminent. The state, however, botched the process for obtaining a permit.

The high court concluded that the state land board broke with its own protocols by issuing the project's conservation district use permit conditionally before holding a contested-case hearing. The proper procedure, the court said, would have been to hold off on any permitting decision until after the lengthy, quasi-judicial hearing process.

Sadly, it was not a shock to learn the state didn't follow protocol - after the loss of another large-scale projects that stood to benefit Hawaii. In a word, Superferry.

In 2005, the state made a crucial decision to exempt the Superferry project from some environmental review requirements, including an environmental impact statement. The system launched in 2007, but was blocked by protesters, and days later the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled the state Department of Transportation should have required additional environmental reviews for the project.

Lawmakers went into a special session to pass a law allowing Superferry to continue operating while an environmental impact statement was performed. But that law was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2009; the Superferry was halted again and soon went bankrupt.

A similar debacle can't afford to be repeated, especially when the TMT comes with a bounty of economic benefits.

Once completed, the TMT is expected to generate $26 million annually in observatory operations and would employ 140 people. The observatory also has agreed to contribute $800,000 per year to the Office of Mauna Kea Management and $200,000 per year to the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, plus $1 million per year for science, technology, engineering and math education on Hawaii island.

That is a lot to lose. That and, more important, the state's reputation and future ability to attract world-class projects.

The Thirty Meter Telescope Project has been developed as collaboration among Caltech, UC, the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), and the national institutes of Japan, China, and India with the goal to design, develop, construct, and operate a thirty-meter class telescope and observatory on Mauna Kea in cooperation with the University of Hawaii (TMT Project). The TMT International Observatory LLC (TIO), a non-profit organization, was established in May 2014 to carry out the construction and operation phases of the TMT Project. The Members of TIO are Caltech, UC, the National Institutes of Natural Sciences of Japan, the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Department of Science and Technology of India, and the National Research Council (Canada); the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) is a TIO Associate. Major funding has been provided by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation.

For more information about the TMT project, visit tmt.org, www.facebook.com/TMTHawaii or follow @TMTHawaii.
The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation believes in bold ideas that create enduring impact in the areas of environmental conservation, patient care and science. Intel co-founder Gordon and his wife Betty established the foundation to create positive change around the world and at home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Our environmental conservation efforts promote sustainability, protect critical ecological systems and align conservation needs with human development. Patient care focuses on eliminating preventable harms and unnecessary health care costs by meaningfully engaging patients and their families in a supportive, redesigned health care system. And science looks for opportunities to transform-or even create-entire fields by investing in early-stage research, emerging fields and top research scientists. Visit us at moore.org or follow us @moorefound


Sandra Dawson

TMT Manager, Hawaii Community Affairs