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State Supreme Court Suspends Hawaii Telescope Permit

HONOLULU (AP) — The Hawaii Supreme Court on Tuesday temporarily suspended a permit that allows a giant telescope to be built on a mountain many Native Hawaiians consider sacred.

The court granted telescope opponents' request for an emergency stay of the effectiveness of the permit until Dec. 2, or until another court order.

The ruling was issued as protesters were gathering on Mauna Kea in anticipation of blocking telescope work from resuming. Work has been stalled since April amid protests.

"Mahalo ke akua," Kealoha Pisciotta, a longtime telescope opponent and one of the plaintiffs challenging the permit, repeated several times after hearing about the ruling. "Thank God."

Image: Protesters at Mauna Kea
Protesters form a road block outside the Mauna Kea visitors center in Hilo, Hawaii on March 30. Protesters are preventing construction of a giant telescope near the summit of a mountain held sacred by Native Hawaiians. Some consider the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope project as desecrating the Big Island's Mauna Kea. Astronomers say the telescope will allow them to see some 13 billion light years away. Tom Callis / AP

Telescope officials announced last week a crew would return to the site this month to do vehicle maintenance work but they wouldn't specify a date.

Representatives for the project and the state attorney general's office didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on the ruling.

"They cannot legally do any work on Mauna Kea," said Richard Naiwieha Wurdeman, the plaintiffs' attorney who filed the emergency request late Monday after hearing news reports that telescope crews would be going to the mountain on Wednesday.

In 2013, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources issued a conservation district use permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope. The permit allowed the nonprofit company building the telescope to proceed with construction on lands that are within the Mauna Kea conservation district.

A group of opponents appealed, but a circuit court affirmed the land board's decision. While the permit appeal was before the Intermediate Court of Appeals, the opponents asked to bypass the court and have the case go directly to the Supreme Court. The high court agreed to hear the case and heard oral arguments in August.

Moving forward with construction pending the Supreme Court ruling is disrespectful, Wurdeman said.

Tuesday's ruling will prevent another standoff between protesters and law enforcement on the mountain, he said: "It avoids for a while any further desecration of the land."

Kahookahi Kanuha, one of the protest leaders, said about a dozen people were on Mauna Kea on Tuesday evening and others planning to join them were waiting to see how telescope officials respond to the ruling.

"We're not completely off the hook yet, because we have not received word TMT will stand down," he said. "I don't know if they interpret maintenance as work and construction. ... From my understanding, they have no right to this mountain."

--Jennifer Sinco Kelleher

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