Construction equipment and vehicles idled since protesters blocked crews from building a giant telescope and the state’s high court revoked its permit are being removed from a mountain that's considered sacred to some Native Hawaiians.
The move signals the project faces a potentially significant delay if the team behind the Thirty Meter Telescope ever applies to state officials for a new permit to build at the Mauna Kea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island.
Protesters who oppose the $1.4 billion project have been calling for the machinery to be removed since the Hawaii Supreme Court found on Dec. 2 that the permit issued by state officials in 2013 was invalid because at that time, a public hearing to air objections to the plan had not been held.
"We respect the Hawaii Supreme Court decision and, as good neighbors and stewards of the mountain, TMT has begun relocating construction vehicles and equipment," Henry Yang, chair of the TMT International Observatory board of governors, said in a statement.
Yang's "comments are quite interesting because if TMT was motivated by being good neighbors and stewards, the construction equipment would have never been up on Mauna Kea to begin with," Richard Naiwieha Wurdeman, the lawyer representing the group challenging the permit, said in an email. "TMT needs to be straightforward with the public. TMT is removing the large construction equipment from Mauna Kea because the law requires it."
After the Dec. 2 court ruling voiding the permit, the state attorney general's office said telescope equipment could remain on the mountain.
The court sent the matter back for a new contested-case hearing. Telescope officials haven't indicated whether they will pursue a new hearing, which could mean a construction delay of several years.
The TMT project — a monster undertaking by the University of California, the California Institute of Technology and a consortium of international organizations — has been in development for a decade.
Critics argued, however, that the mountain’s cultural significance is being sacrificed for the sake of Big Science.
Astronomers revere Mauna Kea because its summit high summit provides a clear view of the sky for 300 days a year, with little air and light pollution. It's expected to enable scientists to see 13 billion light years away for a glimpse into the early years of the universe.
Protests against the giant telescope project objected to the mismanagement of the mountain, which hosts more than a dozen other aging telescopes, and revealed an anger in native people fed up with the under-prioritization of their interests, from the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom to erosion of culture and the natural environment in Hawaii.
Construction halted in April after 31 protesters were arrested for blocking construction. A second attempt to restart construction in June ended with the arrests of 12 protesters and construction crews in vehicles retreating before reaching the site when they encountered large boulders in the road.
One of the protest leaders, Kuuipo Freitas, said she felt relieved watching as some of the machinery left the mountain.
"It's all pretty much cleared now," she said of the site. "We know right now there's no construction that's going to be happening on Mauna Kea. She can just stand majestically without being harmed."
Al Jazeera with wire services