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Hawaii Protesters Block Access Road To Stop Construction Of Massive Telescope

Native Hawaiians have objected to construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope for years. On Monday, about 300 protesters arrived to block workers from accessing the site on a mountain believed to be sacred land.
TMT via AP
Native Hawaiians have objected to construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope for years. On Monday, about 300 protesters arrived to block workers from accessing the site on a mountain believed to be sacred land.

About 300 demonstrators are trying to halt construction on the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope, developers of which are supposed to break ground on Hawaii's Big Island this week.

Before the sun came up on the summit of Mauna Kea, the island's tallest mountain, a group of about half a dozen protesters chained themselves to a grate in the road at the base of the dormant volcano in an attempt to block workers from accessing the only paved road onto the what they say is a sacred site.

Imai Winchester, a teacher from Oahu who was among the protesters chained to the road, said he arrived at about 3 a.m. local time.

"A handful of us committed ourselves to this action to bring light to the situation here," Winchester told KHON. The goal of the civil disobedience, he said, is to inform people about the "desecration of our lands, the failure of the state and its agencies to properly manage something that is important."

He added that he expected to be arrested for the nonviolent protest but that it is the group's "burden as well as our privilege to show our children and the rest of the world how much we love our land."

Daniel Meisenzahl, a spokesman for the University of Hawaii, a member of the international partnership of scientists behind the telescope, said it is unclear if the protest has delayed construction convoys.

The TMT, as it is called, has been the object of intense opposition for nearly a decade and the building project has faced numerous delays, protests and lawsuits. But a decision by the state's Supreme Court in October cleared the way for construction to begin after reinstating a building permit that was revokedyears earlier. And last week, Gov. David Ige announcedseveral roads would be closed beginning Monday to allow for the movement of large equipment onto the mountain.

The giant telescope, which it is estimated will take 10 years to complete, will be the largest instrument of its kind in the Northern Hemisphere and one of the most expensive.

The consortium behind the TMT International Observatory includes the University of California and the California Institute of Technology as well as scientific institutes in Canada, Japan, China and India.

Despite its place in Native Hawaiian culture as hallowed ground that contains ahus — religious altars made of stones — and serves as burial grounds for many of the island's ancestors, Mauna Kea's summit is the ideal location for the powerful TMT, scientists say.

"Located above approximately 40 percent of Earth's atmosphere, [Mauna Kea] has a climate that is particularly stable, dry, and cold; all of which are important characteristics for capturing the sharpest images and producing the best science," TMT International Observatory said in a statement.

The extremely dry air near the summit and absence of clouds and light pollution from that vantage point on the mountain will allow for a revolutionary understanding of the universe, according to telescope developers. And, due to its size — "three times as wide, with nine times more area than the largest existing visible-light telescope in the world" — astronomers expect to gain new insights into the earliest galaxies that formed, peering "back in time to almost 13 billion years ago."

The mountain is already home to 13 telescopes housed at a dozen separate facilities, although five of those are scheduled to be decommissioned by the time the TMT is completed. According to the University of Hawaii's Meisenzahl, two telescopes are in the process of being dismantled and another two have been identified for removal in coming years. He added that a fifth telescope has yet to be selected for removal.

"Hawaii is a unique place," Meisenzahl said, noting that protesters gathered on the mountain were engaging in a peaceful, nonviolent form of protest called Kapu Aloha. "It's a small island and everybody knows each other so law enforcement and opponents are working together. Despite what is happening today it's a positive environment," he added.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
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