Telescope proceeds despite appeal

Construction of the $300 million Advanced Technology Solar Telescope started Nov. 30 and is proceeding, despite an appeal by Kilakila O Haleakala of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources’ approval last year of a conservation district use permit for the project, University of Hawaii officials said.

The project’s ongoing construction contradicts statements made last week by university President M.R.C. Greenwood, who answered questions about the telescope project during a wide-ranging interview Jan. 30 at The Maui News.

When asked about the status of the ATST project during that interview, Greenwood said that an appeal pending before the Hawaii Supreme Court was holding up the start of construction. She added that she was told a couple of months earlier that the delay was costing the project $500,000 per month because the university and the National Science Foundation had hired a contractor and there was a “standing army” waiting to work on the project.

The story with Greenwood’s remarks about the ATST project was published Sunday on Page A1 and continued on Page A3. Greenwood’s comments about $500,000 monthly delay costs applied from early 2012 (when the ATST project team hired staff, contractors and consultants and had them standing by) until construction began in late November.

Since then, project contractor AURA has removed the former Reber Circle astronomy site, and utility and excavation work have begun, university officials said. The project employs 12 to 24 workers at the work site, although the number is expected to increase as work proceeds.

On behalf of Greenwood, Lynne Waters, associate vice president for external affairs and university relations at the University of Hawaii, apologized for “inadvertently confusing the status of the ATST on Haleakala.”

“The Advanced Technology Solar Telescope is a complex and sophisticated project,” Waters said in an email. “Such projects require approvals, permits and other clearances from multiple levels of government, community and, frequently, judicial bodies. With multiple scientific projects such as this proceeding simultaneously under the university’s umbrella, misunderstandings can easily occur and one did during President M.R.C. Greenwood’s interview with The Maui News last week.

“In the case of the ATST, a contested case before the State of Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources was resolved by final action of the land board on Nov. 9, 2012. That land board’s decision is being appealed but construction is allowed to proceed and is proceeding while the appeal goes on,” Waters said.

The state Supreme Court appeal that Greenwood mistakenly referred to was for another lawsuit filed against the ATST, she said. That case was decided in the university’s favor in Circuit Court and the Intermediate Court of Appeals, and the state Supreme Court is reviewing it, she added.

“The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in that case on Dec. 20, 2012, not long after the land board’s final decision in the contested case on Nov. 9, 2012, and the university respectfully awaits the Supreme Court’s decision,” Waters said.

She explained that Kilakila O Haleakala, which objects to the ATST’s impacts to Haleakala’s cultural and environmental resources, has filed three lawsuits against the ATST project. The first challenged the management plan for all of the Haleakala observatories and the ATST project, Waters said. That lawsuit was resolved in favor of the university, she said, although officials expect Kilakila to appeal.

A second lawsuit was an appeal of the land board’s December 2010 permit for the project, and that was the case heard before the Hawaii Supreme Court in December. The third lawsuit is an appeal of the board’s November permit for the telescope project, Waters said.

She added: “President Greenwood apparently confused the impacts of the two cases on construction. We regret that any statement made during the interview last week by President Greenwood inferred that the project was stalled due to the Supreme Court appeal or other legal proceedings. It is not. Construction is continuing pursuant to the November 2012 permit.”

Waters emphasized that the telescope “project is proceeding as permitted, with the scientific benefits of solar astronomy, the educational programs at UH-Maui College and the economic benefits through jobs that it will provide to the community.”