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Protesterers led by native Hawaiian elders take part in a protest against the building of a giant new telescope on what they considered sacred ground at the summit of Mauna Kea volcano, on Big Island, Hawaii, U.S. July 17, 2019. Photo by Ryan Finnerty/Hawaii Public Radio via REUTERS

Hawaii police to stand down from telescope construction site

HONOLULU — Hawaii officials are having police leave a mountain where protesters are blocking construction of a giant telescope because the project isn’t moving forward for now.

An international consortium wants to build the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest peak. But some Native Hawaiians believe the telescope will desecrate sacred land. Protesters have stopped construction from going forward since mid-July.

Telescope builders informed the state it is not prepared to move forward with construction at this time, according to a memo Thursday from Gov. David Ige’s office.

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But that doesn’t mean the embattled Thirty Meter Telescope will move to an alternate site in Spain’s Canary Islands. Construction likely wouldn’t have moved forward during the winter months anyway.

“They are not abandoning Hawaii,” Ige told reporters Thursday.

Ige “expressed his severe disappointment that TMT will not move forward for now, despite months of often intense behind-the-scenes discussions among protesters, telescope owners and state and county officials,” the memo by the governor’s chief of staff, Linda Chu Takayama, said. “Those efforts will continue, and the Governor anticipates that activity on the project will resume in the future.”

State and county officials haven’t demonstrated they can provide safe access to the mountain for everyone, TMT vice president for external relations Gordon Squires said in statement. “We don’t want to put our workers, the people of Hawaii, and the protesters at risk,” he said.

The stand-down did not appear to have taken effect as of 8 a.m., the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported, noting that a half-dozen vehicles belonging to state law enforcement officers remained parked above the barricade on the Mauna Kea access road as about 30 protesters chanted and danced hula.

There’s no time-table for removing state personnel from the mountain and re-opening the access road, Ige said.

“As you all know we’re in the holidays and so we have made decisions that we will be withdrawing our personnel so they can enjoy the holidays with everyone else,” Ige said.

Some protesters who say they’re protecting the mountain had been bracing for colder weather at the mountain.

“We certainly hope that they will move off the mountain as well,” Ige said.

Telescope opponents were still figuring out how they will respond to Ige’s stand-down memo, said Andre Perez, one of the protest leaders. “We suspect they will try to use that as leverage to get us to demobilize,” he said.

The Spanish island of La Palma, which already hosts several powerful telescopes at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, was chosen as a back-up site for the telescope in 2016.

Mauna Kea remains the preferred site, Squires said.

Scientists consider Hawaii a more desirable location. Mauna Kea’s summit was selected because the weather and air conditions there are among the best in the world for viewing the skies. The telescope would give researchers a view back to the deepest reaches of our universe and allow them to examine the time immediately following the Big Bang.

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