HONOLULU, Hawaii – Construction equipment and vehicles that have sat idle since protesters blocked crews from building a giant telescope are being removed from a mountain that’s considered sacred to some Native Hawaiians.
Protesters who oppose the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope have been calling for the machinery to be removed after the state Supreme Court earlier this month invalidated the project’s permit to build on conservation land of the Big Island volcano.
The equipment is coming down sometime Wednesday, telescope officials said.
“We respect the Hawaii Supreme Court decision and, as good neighbours and stewards of the mountain, TMT has begun relocating construction vehicles and equipment from Maunakea,” said a statement from Henry Yang, chair of the TMT International Observatory Board of Governors.
Yang’s “comments are quite interesting because if TMT was motivated by being good neighbours and stewards, the construction equipment would have never been up on Mauna Kea to begin with,” Richard Naiwieha Wurdeman, the lawyer representing the group challenging the permit, said in an email. “TMT needs to be straightforward with the public. TMT is removing the large construction equipment from Mauna Kea because the law requires it.”
After the Dec. 2 court ruling voiding the permit, the state attorney general’s office said telescope equipment could remain on the mountain.
The court sent the matter back for a new contested-case hearing. Telescope officials haven’t indicated whether they will pursue a new hearing, which could mean a construction delay of several years.
Mechanics went to the site Tuesday to do maintenance and repairs on vehicles, said Scott Ishikawa, a telescope spokesman.
Protesters have been concerned that the vehicles were leaking, said Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the permit.
She said she’s relieved that the equipment will be removed. “Mauna Kea is the burial ground of our ancestors, not a parking lot,” she said.
A group of universities in California and Canada plan to build the telescope with partners from China, India and Japan. Partners would receive a share of observing time, along with University of Hawaii scientists.
Astronomers revere Mauna Kea because its summit high summit provides a clear view of the sky for 300 days a year, with little air and light pollution. It’s expected to enable scientists to see 13 billion light years away for a glimpse into the early years of the universe.
Construction halted in April after 31 protesters were arrested for blocking construction. A second attempt to restart construction in June ended with the arrests of 12 protesters and construction crews in vehicles retreating before reaching the site when they encountered large boulders in the road.
One of the protest leaders, Kuuipo Freitas, said she felt relieved watching as some of the machinery left the mountain.
“It’s all pretty much cleared now,” she said of the site. “We know right now there’s no construction that’s going to be happening on Mauna Kea. She can just stand majestically without being harmed.”
Follow Jennifer Sinco Kelleher at http://www.twitter.com/JenHapa. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jennifer-sinco-kelleher.