HONOLULU (CN) - Officials in charge of the Thirty Meter Telescope planned atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea removed all equipment and vehicles that had been staged to begin construction on the $1.4 billion project.
This week's removal came two weeks after the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that procedural errors in issuing the building permit denied due process rights of those opposed to the project.
The Dec. 2 ruling was another setback for the University of Hawaii at Hilo, which wants to build what will become the world's most powerful optical telescope, and a victory for protesters who claim the development impacts native Hawaiian culture and sacred land atop the dormant volcano.
A group that considers itself protectors of the mountain as a sacred Native Hawaiian place was on the summit to make sure the construction equipment was removed without damaging the 'ahu, altars that were built on the project's site, according to Hawaii News Now.
"We respect the Hawaii Supreme Court decision and, as good neighbors and stewards of the mountain, Thirty Meter Telescope has begun relocating construction vehicles and equipment from Mauna Kea," Henry Yang, chairman of the TMT International Observatory Board of Governors, said in an official statement.
"Some maintenance work was needed before transporting the vehicles down the mountain, given that they have been idle since April. We thank everyone as we assess our next steps forward," Yang said.
Hawaii's Board of Land and Natural Resources had conditionally approved the university's application to build the telescope after holding two public hearings in which native Hawaiians called the planned 18-story observatory tower "a desecration."
"TMT was not prepared for the outpouring of opposition they provoked," Larry Sinkin, spokesman for nonprofit Hawaiian independence advocacy group Kingdom of Hawaii wrote in an email. "TMT thought that they could defuse that opposition by coming to the islands and visiting with a few key people. That assumption turned out to be very wrong."
The Hawaii Supreme Court agreed.
"Quite simply, the board put the cart before the horse when it issued the permit before the request for a contested-case hearing was resolved and the hearing was held," Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald wrote for the court.
Justice Richard W. Pollack concurred with the 58-page opinion by writing 49 pages of his own, noting the Hawaii Constitution's specific protections of native Hawaiian rights.
"If customary and traditional Native American practices are to be meaningfully safeguarded, findings on the extent of their exercise, their impairment and the feasibility of their protection are paramount," he wrote.
Sinkin, who is also a lawyer and former executive director of San Antonio Solar, gave up harnessing the sun's rays for energy to live on Hawaii and advocate for Hawaiian sovereignty.
Mauna Kea is the most sacred of all the peaks in Hawaii to native religious group. But astronomers have long held that 13,796-foot peak is also one of the best places on earth to view and study the stars thanks to its height, dry environment and stable air flow. Thirteen observatories are already located on Mauna Kea.
"Now the situation is even more difficult for [TMT proponents]. Thousands of people are watching to see whether TMT will call off the project in Hawaii or try to get another state permit," Sinkin said. "If they choose to proceed, there will be massive opposition during the administrative process and physical opposition should the project be allowed to proceed."
"I think part of it is that we need to manage that resource better. We need to determine what appropriate use is," Hawaii Gov. David Ige said in a recent discussion with the editorial board of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Ige has long been a supportive of the telescope project.
"We need to find better balance between science and culture, and we need to do a better job of managing that facility," Ige told the paper.
Even with this setback, Ige said he recently expressed his personal support for the project to Japanese TMT team members and that he has committed state agencies to go through the Hawaii Supreme Court order "to determine what impact it is to the process."
In an official statement after the ruling, Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin said his office would be advising the land board regarding next steps.
The Thirty Meter Telescope project is a partnership between the University of Hawaii at Hilo, a group of universities in California and Canada, and partners from China, India and Japan.
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