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Protesters arrested blocking road to Mauna Kea telescope site

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this photo taken Monday, March 30, 2015, protesters form a road block outside the Mauna Kea visitors center in Hilo, Hawaii. Protesters are preventing construction of a giant telescope near the summit of a mountain held sacred by Native Hawaiians. Some consider the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope project as desecrating the Big Island's Mauna Kea. Astronomers say the telescope will allow them to see some 13 billion light years away. (AP Photo/Hawaii Tribune Herald, Tom Callis)
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Protesters opposing the construction of one of the world’s largest telescopes on Hawaii island on Thursday temporarily blocked the road leading to the top of the mountain, leading to 12 arrests.

Hawaii County police spokeswoman Chris Loos said Thursday that some people were arrested in the protest on the road to the Mauna Kea summit, but he didn’t provide a specific number. 

Police warned the protesters this week that they would be arrested if they continued to block vehicles on the road. The protesters said they wouldn’t back down.

In a written statement Thursday from TMT Observatory Corp., the nonprofit heading the construction, Project Manager Gary Sanders said: "We regret that police action had to be taken to enable our legal access to the project site. TMT respects the rights of everyone to express their viewpoints. We also respect the laws of the State of Hawaii and the seven-year public process and authority that granted us permits to build the Thirty Meter Telescope in the Maunakea Science Reserve’s Astronomy Precinct. Like most people in the community we truly believe that science and culture can coexist on Mauna Kea as it has for the past 50-years along with other public uses."

The telescope, billed as the world’s largest and expected to take a decade to build, is planned on more than five acres that the University of Hawaii subleases from the state.

The mountain is held sacred by Native Hawaiians, and opponents tried to prevent the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. They questioned whether land appraisals were done correctly and whether Native Hawaiian groups had been consulted.

Work got underway after protesters were arrested and their path was cleared to the summit, Sandra Dawson, a spokeswoman for the project, said in an email to The Associated Press.

Scientists hope to use the telescope to see 13 billion light years away, giving them a look into the early years of the universe. The mountaintop, which Native Hawaiians consider sacred, is an ideal location for observing the most distant parts of the universe, astronomers said.

Opponents who question whether land appraisals were done correctly and whether Native Hawaiian groups had been consulted have tried to prevent the construction of the $1.4 billion telescope.

The 15 people arrested Thursday were trying to block trucks heading to the peak, Pisciotta said. After the vehicles were allowed to pass, about 40 to 50 people began following the trucks, which moved slowly because of their heavy loads, she said.

About 300 protesters, whom she called "protectors," were on the mountain, Piscottia said. She was not on the mountain but was in contact with the protesters.

Protests also disrupted a groundbreaking and Hawaiian blessing ceremony last year, but no one was arrested. In fact, some protesters who yelled during the ceremony attempt later apologized to event organizers and helped put away chairs, Pisciotta said.

"We said aloha to each other and we hugged," she said.

Native Hawaiian leaders have been meeting and talking about the issue with state officials, police and prosecutors, Pisciotta said. "We have told them that this is desecration, and there are laws against desecration," she said.

Sanders said he and others at the telescope project respect the rights of everyone to express their viewpoints, but they also respect the seven-year process the state underwent to issue building permits.

"Like most people in the community, we truly believe that science and culture can coexist" on the mountain, he said, "as it has for the past 50-years along with other public uses."

The observatory is expected to be operational by 2024, the same year a 39-meter telescope is expected to be completed in Chile.

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