Divisive telescope to restart building next week in Hawaii

HONOLULU — Construction on a giant telescope will start again next week after lengthy court battles and passionate protests from those who say building it on Hawaii's tallest mountain will desecrate land sacred to some Native Hawaiians.

State officials announced Wednesday that the road to the top of Mauna Kea mountain on the Big Island will be closed Monday as equipment is delivered to the construction site.

The Thirty Meter Telescope project got approval to move forward with construction last month. While it was the final legal step in the drawn-out process, opponents vowed to keep fighting and even get arrested if necessary to stop construction.

Opponents say the $1.4 billion telescope will desecrate sacred land. Supporters say the cutting-edge instrument will bring educational and economic opportunities to Hawaii.

Scientists revere the mountain for its summit above the clouds that provides a clear view of the sky with very little air and light pollution. Astronomers say it will allow them to reach back 13 billion years to answer fundamental questions about the advent of the universe.

Plans for the project date to 2009, when scientists selected Mauna Kea after a five-year, around-the-world campaign to find the ideal site.

It won a series of approvals from Hawaii, including a permit to build on conservation land in 2011.

Protests disrupted a groundbreaking and Hawaiian blessing ceremony at the site in 2014. After that, the demonstrations intensified.

Construction stopped in April 2015 after 31 protesters were arrested for blocking the work. A second attempt to restart construction a few months later ended with more arrests and crews pulling back when they encountered large boulders in the road.

The state Supreme Court upheld the project's construction permit last year.

Gov. David Ige, who supports the telescope, vowed last month that construction will move ahead in a way that "respects the people, place and culture that make Hawaii unique."

Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors said the high court ruling must be respected, but that people's right to free speech also is protected. She said she hoped there would be no confrontations.

The telescope is a divisive issue in Hawaii, with some saying they're afraid to publicly support the project because they fear blowback from Native Hawaiian activists.

A group of universities in California and Canada make up the telescope company, with partners from China, India and Japan. The instrument's primary mirror would measure 98 feet (30 meters) in diameter. Compared with the largest existing visible-light telescope in the world, it would be three times as wide, with nine times more area.

Telescope opponents have latched on to questions about funding gaps for the multination project.

It's impossible for projects of this magnitude to have full funding, especially when a site hasn't been secured, said Ross Shinyama, a lawyer representing TMT International Observatory, told the Hawaii Supreme Court last year. Certain nations won't commit funds until a site is selected, he said.

Telescope officials had selected a backup site in Spain's Canary Islands in case it couldn't be built in Hawaii.

Parts for the device have been built in California and partner countries while construction on Mauna Kea was halted.

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