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Back In Court As TMT's April Deadline Looms

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Opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope are back in court today. Hawai?i Supreme Court justices will hear arguments about whether anti-TMT forces are entitled to another contested case hearing – this time, on the telescope’s sublease. HPR’s Ku?uwehi Hiraishi reports.

The $1.4 billion Thirty-Meter Telescope is slated to be one of the largest and strongest telescopes in the world. TMT International has been courting Mauna Kea as it’s preferred site for nearly a decade. But Big Island educator and cultural practitioner Kalani Flores opposes the project and considers the mountain to be sacred.

“At Mauna a Wakea, what has happened is people have forgotten their connection to these places,” says Flores, “Decision-makers, politicians, developers are ignoring the significance of these places.”

Flores is at the center of today’s court battle. David Kauila Kopper, an attorney with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, is representing Flores in the case.  

“Well this case is really about the rights of native Hawaiians to have a voice in state decision-making when those decisions could affect their cultural resources or native Hawaiian traditional, customary practices,” says Kopper.

Back in 2014, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources denied Flores’ request for a contested case hearing on the sublease decision. BLNR approved the University of Hawai?i’s
6-acre sublease to TMT and Flores appealed to the Environmental Court of the Third Circuit.

“And that court invalidated the sublease because this special hearing wasn’t held first,” says Kopper, “and the University and the Board of Land and Natural Resources appealed that decision to the Supreme Court and that’s where we are.”

In a separate legal matter, telescope opponents are appealing TMT’s construction permit. Brief filings for that case wrap this spring and the high court is expected to schedule oral arguments by the end of the year. Not all native Hawaiians are opposed to the project.

“So we are explorers yeah? We all know that and it would be appropriate for us to be there when we explore space,” says Big Island businessman Richard Ha.

Ha is a board member for the native Hawaiian pro-TMT organization PUEO, which stands for Perpetuating Unique Educational Opportunities. Decisions in both cases are not expected any time soon, which may have a bearing on the project’s timeline. TMT’s board set an April 2018 deadline to decide on building the telescope in Hawai?i or relocating to the Canary Islands. Ha says he isn’t worried.

“I?m more optimistic than not,” says Ha, “I know that April was mentioned as a deadline. However, I also know that they (TMT) value Mauna Kea as being the premier site in the world, so that is a big motivating factor for them.”

TMT could not confirm whether a decision on the matter is scheduled for next month. In an emailed statement they said, “Maunakea is still our preferred site for the Thirty Meter Telescope.”

To listen to opening arguments, click here Flores Case.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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