Workers at existing Mauna Kea telescopes to return to work

Updated: Aug. 9, 2019 at 7:39 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Workers at existing telescopes atop Mauna Kea will return to work after assurances from the state to afford them easier access to the summit.

Friday’s announcement by the Maunakea Observatories, doesn’t clear Thirty Meter Telescope protesters from the Mauna Kea Access Road.

Instead, officials said that observatory employees will use Old Saddle Road and a section of unpaved lava to get to the summit.

“The big change is the statement of support that I feel we have from the authorities that we have safe access to the mountain and from the mountain,” said Andy Adamson, Associate Director of Hawaii Site for Gemini Observatory.

[Read more: Employees of existing telescopes say they’re ‘collateral damage’ in TMT conflict]

[Read more: TMT takes to TV airwaves as opponents attempt to broaden message virtually]

The plan required the state to lay cinder and cones so cars could safety pass.

“This route is unimproved and lined with tents, cars and people,” the observatories said, in a news release. "The people blocking the road also agreed to allow larger vehicles to access Maunakea by going around the tent blockade. This means the vehicles will travel on the road’s shoulder.”

Telescope operators abandoned the summit July 16, saying that they decided to withdraw their employees from Mauna Kea as a safety precaution.

As the weeks dragged on, telescope technicians and astronomers grew increasingly frustrated about being unable to easily ascend the mountain to get to existing telescopes.

Ivan Look, Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope operation manager, said Friday the access hammered out for astronomers and technicians is a relief.

“We are super excited to be able to get back on the summit and do the things that we always do,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Mauna Kea Access Road remains blocked with people, tents and law enforcement. Both the Maunakea Observatories and the people who call themselves protectors of the mountain say telescope vehicles have been allowed access since the governor withdrew his emergency proclamation for Mauna Kea on July 30.

“Astronomers were not accessing the summit while the telescopes were not operating, after having evacuated four weeks ago,” said Maunakea Observatories in a statement.

Native Hawaiian activists say they are allowed one vehicle up per day for religious practices.

“We continue to stand here now on a closed road that was closed by the state of Hawaii. Right now we are still allowing access,” said TMT opponent Lanakila Mangauil.

Observatory workers say they went up for emergency telescope maintenance, but were forced to use a side access road on the lava field was bumpy, unreliable and unsafe.

Before the deal was hashed out, astronomy technicians and engineers also had to go through a tedious process of approvals that included getting an OK from protesters.

Going forward, those heading to the summit will still have to notify authorities of their plans.

Telescope workers say they still need to contact UH’s Office of Maunakea Management, which informs law enforcement and then contacts the activists.

But the state and county have pledged that the observatory employees will be able to get to the telescopes at Mauna Kea even as the TMT protest continues.

Gov. David Ige, who’s been quiet in recent days as the protest has dragged on, called the agreement an “interim solution” for access to the existing telescopes.

“The state remains committed to re-opening the Mauna Kea Access Road intersection as an immediate priority," Ige said, in a news release. "The state stands behind the more than 500 employees’ efforts to bring the telescopes back online to begin astronomical observations again.”

With the new access point, the observatories said they plan to send regular day crews to the summit shortly to prepare telescopes to resume operations and resume scientific observations shortly.

About 500 people work at the Maunakea Observatories. During the standoff, there’s been no research ― from the summit or remotely.

The observatories said it’s the longest period in the five-decade history of Mauna Kea astronomy that all the telescopes have been simultaneously offline.

Hilton Lewis, director of the W. M. Keck Observatory, said telescope workers are “eager to get back” to work and "resume the world-leading astronomy for which Hawaii is renowned.”

The observatories say actual research on the mountain could take weeks as operations start to return.

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