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Protests challenge international telescope

An international organization faced off against protesters as it tried to start building a billion-dollar telescope atop sacred Hawaii's sacred Mauna Kea.

After years of planning, an international organization faced off against hundreds of protesters as it tried to start building a billion-dollar telescope on Monday atop sacred Hawaii's sacred Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano.

About 300 to 500 protesters turned out at Mauna Kea attempting to block the start of construction. Some of them chained themselves to the metal grates of a cattle guard to block the road. Hundreds more peaceful protesters gathered in front of Hawaii's State Capitol, where they held signs and danced.

The TMT International Observatory, or TIO, was created as a nonprofit organization in May 2014 to build the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea, located on Hawaii's Big Island, where 13 other astronomical observatories already operate telescopes atop the summit.

The mountain's high elevation, clear skies, low water vapor and other relatively pristine atmospheric conditions make it a rare and ideal location for scientists to study other planets, stars, black holes and galaxies, according to TIO.

The organization's members include Caltech, University of California, National Institutes of Natural Sciences of Japan, National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Department of Science and Technology of India, and National Research Council of Canada.

Many indigenous Hawaiians consider the volcano to be their most sacred mountain, however, and have long opposed construction there. No legal restrictions exist to prevent building another telescope on it.

Among those voicing opposition to the telescope — and helping fuel publicity about indigenous Hawaiians' reverence for the volcano — is "Aquaman" actor Jason Momoa, a native Hawaiian who fits in visits with the protestors between his film, TV and photo shoots and time spent with family.

A slow-burning controversy

The site was chosen in 2009 for TIO's US$1.4 billion project, which involves building a telescope 18 stories tall with a mirror 30 meters in diameter.

Periodic protests kicked off during a 2014 groundbreaking ceremony. Hawaii's Supreme Court affirmed a state Board of Land and Natural Resources decision to grant a building permit, but also ruled in 2015 that a new permit was needed due to flaws in the state process.

In June of this year, the state agency gave permission for the construction process begin. Hawaii's Governor David Ige and TIO jointly announced last week that construction would begin on Monday. The state said the access road and some hunting areas in a forest reserve would be temporarily closed off.

“We have followed a 10-year process to get this point, and the day for construction to begin has arrived," Ige said.

"At this time our number one priority is everyone’s safety," he said. "As construction begins, I continue to be committed to engaging with people holding all perspectives on this issue and to making meaningful changes that further contribute to the co-existence of culture and science on Mauna Kea.”

Henry Yang, chair of TIO's board of governors, said that after being given all of the necessary state clearances and "respectfully reaching out to the community," the building would finally begin.

“We have learned much over the last 10-plus years on the unique importance of Mauna Kea to all, and we remain committed to being good stewards on the mountain and inclusive of the Hawaiian community."

However, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a semi-autonomous department that advocates for indigenous peoples, called on state officials to halt all planned construction two days before it was set to begin.

The office said in a statement that the project had not sufficiently addressed the native Hawaiian community’s longstanding opposition or the state’s "decades-long pattern of mismanagement of Mauna Kea."