Protesters block construction of giant Hawaii telescope

Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, Associated Press

Honolulu — Hundreds of protesters on a Hawaii mountain road erupted in cheers Wednesday after construction crews turned around and retreated from the site for what would be one of the world’s largest telescopes.

The billion-dollar project has drawn intense opposition from Native Hawaiians who say the 18-story observatory on the Big Island’s Mauna Kea would desecrate land they consider sacred.

Work on the Thirty Meter Telescope has been stalled for months after a large group blocked access to the mountaintop in April, a demonstration that led to 31 arrests.

Protesters said they were ready to adopt similar tactics and go to jail if necessary to make their point Wednesday.

Several hundred gathered more than 9,000 feet up Mauna Kea, blocking crew members who intended to install fencing around the construction site near the summit. They blocked the road, then let workers pass, and different groups of demonstrators repeated the pattern several times at higher points on the mountain.

Protester Kainoa Stafford said the crews eventually turned around and headed back down. A telescope spokeswoman, Caroline Witherspoon, confirmed that construction workers had turned away. She said company officials would release a statement later in the day.

Stafford also said he saw Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources authorities put plastic cuffs on protesters at several points up the mountain and put them into vans “pretty much anytime someone wouldn’t comply or listen to their order.”

He couldn’t say how many people were detained.

Attempts to contact state authorities to confirm or count the detentions weren’t immediately successful.

Hawaii County police made at least one arrest, Assistant Chief Henry Tavares said. He didn’t have details on the arrest.

For the protesters, many of whom had been camping near the visitor center despite 30-degree nights, it was a victory.

“For today at least we did really good at keeping our lines strong until arrest,” said protester Kuuipo Freitas.

Astronomers are interested in the site because its summit is nearly 14,000 feet high, well above the clouds and able to provide a clear view of the sky for 300 days a year. There’s also very little air and light pollution.

Thirteen other large telescopes occupy Mauna Kea.

Gov. David Ige has responded to the protests, saying Hawaii must do a better job of caring for the mountain but that construction crews have the right to proceed. “The state and Hawaii County are working together to uphold the law and ensure safety on roadways and on Mauna Kea, while allowing the people their right to peacefully and lawfully protest,” the governor’s office said in a statement late Tuesday.

Protesters Wednesday ranged from toddlers to the elderly. Stafford said they were emotional but peaceful. “People were yelling, but no one got violent though,” he said.

The nonprofit Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory LLC intends to build and operate the $1.4 billion telescope.

Its partners include India, China, Canada, Japan and the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corp., formed by the University of California and the California Institute of Technology.

Partners would receive a share of observing time, along with University of Hawaii scientists.

But protesters vow to remain vigilant.

“We were happy that they are not going to be desecrating our aina today,” said Freitas, using the Hawaiian word for land. “But tomorrow is another story. And the day after, and the day after that.”