Maunakea Observatories Says It Plans To Return Crews To Work

Aug 9, 2019

Updated: Aug. 9, 4:32 p.m.

Maunakea Observatories, the group operating the existing telescopes on Mauna Kea, announced plans on Friday to resume "close to full operations as possible," although the main access road to the summit remains blocked by protesters.

Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the East Asian Observatory that operates the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, said the observatories will attempt to start the return to regular operations next week.

The blockade has been in place for four weeks as protesters who are mainly native Hawaiians try to prevent the planned construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. The protesters view the project as a desecration of a sacred place.

All observatory personnel had been pulled off Mauna Kea when the protest against TMT began in mid-July.

During the month-long standoff, some observatory maintenance crews were allowed to work on the telescopes but 2,000 hours of observing time involving 400 projects have been lost, according to Maunakea Observatories.

The state and leaders of the protest group that calls itself ki'ai or protectors of the mountain negotiated an arrangement to allow workers to move up to the mountain via the Old Saddle Road and a section of unpaved lava. In return, one vehicle of cultural practitioners was allowed access to the summit.

On Wednesday, the state used cinder and cones on the unpaved area to alleviate safety issues. The protesters also agreed to let larger vehicle to access the mountain by going around the tent blockade on Mauna Kea Access Road, a path that involves driving on the road's shoulder.

But Gov. David Ige is quoted in the Maunakea Observatories announcement that the arrangement is not permanent.

"The interim solutions for access to the telescopes is a step forward but remains inadequate for the long term. The State remains committed to re-opening the Maunakea Access Road intersection as an immediate priority. The State stands behind the more than 500 employees' efforts to bring the telescopes back online to begin astronomical observations again," Ige stated.

The process of accessing Mauna Kea can be a drawnout affair. Those blocking the road are provided a list of the vehicles going up and when they will travel. The observatories say they first contact the state Office of Maunakea Management, which then communicates with law enforcement personnel, who in turn provide the list to the protesters.

"This arrangement -- and the improvements made by the state to address safety concerns and ensure appropriate access for the observatories -- constitutes progress," the announcement said. But the observatories are seeking unimpeded access without the delays that come with the requirement of prior notice.

The observatories stated it plans to send regular day crews back to the summit to prepare the telescopes to resume operations. 

According to the announcement, some instruments and systems were disabled during the four-week shutdown, and restarting them depends on the complexity of the equipment.  The observatories group said it hopes to resume scientific observations "as soon as possible."

"We will be trying to get some of our crews up using the side road [Old Saddle Road], which has been improved and smoothed and we have some cones that have been put out for safety by the state. That addresses some of our concerns about safety, so using that road we hope to start to get back to what our normal operations would be," Dempsey said.

Dempsey said that the process of restarting scientific work will begin next week -- but cautioned that conditions are still not adequate for very large or highly sensitive components -- like the observatory's new black hole detector -- to make the journey.

One of the leaders of the protest said earlier this week that the only people the activists are committed to blocking are those delivering machinery for the TMT construction.

"The road closure is being maintained by the state, it is not us," said Lanakila Mangauil, among the spokespersons representing the group of protesters.