The embattled $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project has suffered another legal setback, which could delay the restart of its construction.
On Friday, Hawaii Circuit Court Judge Greg Nakamura ordered a new contested case hearing regarding the University of Hawaii at Hilo's sublease to TMT International Observatory, saying that Hawaii's Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) violated the constitutional rights of resident E. Kalani Flores by approving the sublease without first holding a contested case hearing as requested by Flores in 2014, according to NBC affiliate Hawaii News Now.
"Judge Nakamura's ruling reaffirms our position that the BLNR's actions have failed to protect Native Hawaiian rights and the public's interest in these public lands of Mauna a Wakea," Flores said in a statement.
Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin told NBC News that he plans to appeal.
"This judgment may have broad ramifications for future cases before the Land Board," Chin said. "Therefore, while we respect the court's decision, we do plan to appeal it within thirty days, as the law requires."
Even if the permit were approved after a new contested case hearing, the process could delay construction by months or years, according to Hawaii News Now.
If built, the Thirty Meter Telescope would be the largest and most powerful telescope in the world, over 30 meters in diameter, 18 stories high, with 10 times the power of the Hubble Space Telescope. In November, Thirty Meter Telescope officials named a mountain in the Canary Islands an alternative to the Mauna Kea site.
The telescope is opposed by some Native Hawaiians and environmental activists who argue that Mauna Kea is sacred — with many ancient grave sites — as well as a protected and fragile conservation district, with several rare and endangered species.
In December 2015, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that TMT International Observatory's permit for conservation district use was not valid because the BLNR issued it without first holding a contested case hearing, violating Native Hawaiians' constitutional rights. A new hearing began October 2016 and is ongoing.
"Judge Nakamura's decision follows the Supreme Court's clear message to government agencies that they cannot act as 'a passive actor or a neutral umpire' when it comes to decisions that implicate the constitutional rights of Native Hawaiians to exercise traditional and customary practices," David Kauila Kopper of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, which is representing Flores, said in a statement. "They must take affirmative steps to ensure a process that safeguards Native Hawaiian rights and effectuates the values of the public trust."