BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The director of a Spanish research center said Monday that the international consortium that wants to build a giant telescope on Hawaii's tallest peak despite protests from Native Hawaiians has decided to seek a building permit for an alternative site in the Canary Islands.
Canary Islands Astrophysics Institute Director Rafael Rebolo told The Associated Press that he received a letter from the head of the Thirty Meter Telescope project saying its board recently decided "to proceed with the request to seek a building permit" for the island of La Palma.
However, Rebolo insisted the consortium that already obtained a permit in Hawaii still plans to put the $1.4 billion telescope on the top of Mauna Kea.
Some Native Hawaiians believe the Big Island mountain is sacred, and protesters are in their fourth week of blocking access to Mauna Kea's summit to prevent construction.
"We are observing what is happening in Hawaii with the maximum respect," Rebolo, the point man for the alternative site in Spain's Canary Islands, said.
"Our position is that we are here if the TMT project needs us," he said in a telephone interview from the institute's headquarters on the island of Tenerife.
Scientists selected Mauna Kea's summit for the giant telescope because the weather and air conditions there are among the best in the world for viewing the skies.
The Hawaii Supreme Court last year ruled the international consortium behind the telescope lawfully obtained a permit to build the telescope, clearing the way for the construction to proceed.
Separately, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources granted a two-year extension to the deadline for starting construction. The new deadline is Sept. 26, 2021.
Given the opposition, the international consortium in October 2016 announced a backup location in the Canary Islands — Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma.
Rebolo said local officials who would have jurisdiction over a La Palma building permit for the new telescope solidly back the project and that the observatory site has already passed environmental impact evaluations.
"Our mountains are not sacred," he added.
A Native Hawaiian protest leader called the development regarding the building permit a good sign.
"There's lots of good science to be done from the Canary Islands," said Kealoha Pisciotta, who has helped organize the blockade on Mauna Kea. It would "be a win for everyone."
But the news won't prompt protesters to stop demonstration, she said.
Kaho'okahi Kanuha, another protest leader who has been arrested several times trying to block telescope construction on Mauna Kea, said he hopes telescope builders make the "right decision" and move the project to the Canary Islands.
"We remain committed to protecting Mauna Kea from further desecration, no matter how long it takes," he said.
Big Island Mayor Harry Kim, whom Hawaii's governor tasked with finding common ground among Native Hawaiian leaders, protesters and telescope stakeholders, said it would be a loss for his island and the state if the telescope was built in Spain instead.
"I thought this could be a good thing for Hawaii if done the right way," Kim said.
But the mayor also acknowledged that injustices against the Native Hawaiian community need to be addressed. "Part of the right way is a recognition of wrongs of past."
The mayor said his responsibility is to find a better way forward that addresses the many complicated issues involved with the battle over the telescope, including the economics for the Big Island.
"If this opportunity is lost, and I do mean it, there will be a sadness on my part," Kim said. "Not only because of science and education and opportunity, part of my responsibility is to try to find ways to make a better economic base for this island."
He said he doesn't want his county's entire economy to be based on tourism like it is on the other islands in Hawaii.
On "Maui, Kauai, and Oahu, the vast, vast majority of those people on those islands and counties can no longer own a home because of what has happened economically," he said.
The telescope "was one of the ways — besides agriculture, beside where we develop resorts and how we develop resorts — of my long-range viewpoint of what would be better for this island."
Officials with Gov. David Ige's office and the University of Hawaii said they were not immediately able to respond to requests for comment.
Last week, Spain's science minister, Pedro Duque, reiterated the government's full support for the Canary Islands as a Plan B site for the telescope and said the country is well-prepared to host it.
"We have all the necessary plans at all levels — the people, the speed, the systems, absolutely everything is ready if they want to come," Duque said.
The Canary Islands archipelago, located west of Morocco in the eastern Atlantic Ocean, is already home to several powerful telescopes. The Roque de los Muchachos Observatory hosts more than 20.
The site in Hawaii, which is considered the best place for astronomy in the Northern Hemisphere, is also already home to more than a dozen telescopes.
Jones reported from Honolulu. Associated Press writer Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu contributed to this report.