MAUNA KEA, Hawaii — The entire staffs of the observatories atop Mauna Kea have been evacuated in an unprecedented move due to safety concerns related to the protest at the mountain’s base over plans to build another telescope.

Twenty-five workers from five observatories were escorted down the mountain at 4 p.m. in a move that affects dozens of scientific projects.

“This is a risk and a wrench for us to have to step away at this point,” said Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope operated by East Asian Observatory, at a press conference at the base of Mauna Kea late afternoon Tuesday.

She said the telescopes are delicate machines worth millions of dollars, some of which require daily maintenance, but that officials decided to evacuate staff because of the lack of consistent access to and from the mountain. Although some of the telescopes can be operated remotely, Dempsey said astronomers won’t attempt to in case something goes wrong.

It was the latest illustration of the volatility on Mauna Kea, where for the second straight day hundreds of people blocked the access road to protest the state’s looming effort to facilitate construction of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope. TMT opponents have set up camp across the street and pledged to peacefully block the project throughout its 10-year construction timeline.

TMT Jessica Dempsey East Asian Observatory director.
Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, a project of the East Asian Observatory, speaks to news media at the base of the mountain Tuesday. She said she hopes there will be no equipment crises while the observatories are unmanned. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The demonstrators celebrated when they were told by authorities that there would be no arrests Tuesday after a long day of negotiations between the group, who call themselves kia’i or protectors, and state law enforcement.

But Wednesday could be another matter.

On Tuesday morning, activist leaders were trying to strike a deal with authorities on who should be allowed to drive up the mountain. The situation looked precarious after TMT opponents refused to agree to allow astronomers up and the state refused to allow a single car of Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners up the mountain to pray. Both sides have set up checkpoints on Mauna Kea Access Road, with the opponents closer to the intersection and law enforcement several yards up the road.

“We were not able to come to agreement with law enforcement,” said Kaho’okahi Kanuha around midday. “Kupuna are going to block the road.”

He called for worldwide support.

“Now is the time,” he said. “We need to do it because we have no other choice. We fight and we stand or we disappear forever.”

Demonstrators found out there would be no arrests today even though the kupuna protestors continued to block Mauna Kea Access Road. July 16, 2019
Demonstrators celebrated after they found out there would be no arrests Tuesday. The activists and law enforcement both have checkpoints on Mauna Kea Access Road. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Using elders as the first line of defense while avoiding mass arrests was a strategy the protesters also used Monday. No arrests have occurred so far.

For several hours, protesters waited in anticipation of the arrival of Honolulu police officers sent from Oahu. The city sent numerous officers to Hawaii Island but wouldn’t say how many. By late afternoon the situation shifted again.

“Today we’ve been given word that they will not be coming,” Kanuha said around 3:30 p.m.. “Tomorrow is another day.”

He said he expects arrests to begin Wednesday.

In Honolulu, meanwhile, about 100 protesters gathered outside the Capitol on Tuesday morning, waving Hawaiian flags and signs.

TMT protesters outside Gov. David Ige’s office at the Capitol on Tuesday morning. Yoohyun Jung/Civil Beat

Facing Beretania Street, the protesters chanted and waved to oncoming traffic, with some people in passing cars honking and cheering in support.

Then some of them took their protest to Gov. David Ige’s office, chanting outside his door.

Back on the Big Island, Native Hawaiian practitioner Kealoha Pisciotta said the issue could be resolved quickly if TMT officials chose to build in Chile instead.

“Here’s the problem,” Pisciotta said. “We don’t have a second option. We only have one Mauna Kea.”

She said the planned telescope site is within the “Ring of Shrines” and would block cultural practitioners from seeing the sun.

At a news conference at the base of Mauna Kea around 4 p.m., Jason Redulla, director of the Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement, discussed the gate that the state erected on the access road late Monday afternoon and then took back down after protesters reconvened and blocked emergency vehicles from going up the mountain.

Jessica Dempsey. Director of the East Asian Observatory receives hug from TMT protestor Noelani Ahia after press conference.
Jessica Dempsey from the East Asian Observatory receives hug from TMT opponent Noelani Ahia after a Tuesday afternoon press conference. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Really, as we move toward construction, the state will control access,” Redulla said. “We’ll control access with or without a gate.”

He refused to share any information about what equipment or how many officers the state has on hand, citing the security concerns.

The preparation for the TMT construction project involves coordination among the governor’s office, the Hawaii County mayor’s office, state attorney general’s office, Hawaii County Police Department, Honolulu Police Department, state sheriffs, Department of Transportation, University of Hawaii, Department of Land and Natural Resources, the National Guard, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and Department of Defense, among other agencies. The agencies are coordinating under a “unified command,” although friction and miscommunication between agencies were apparent this week.

A spokesman from the attorney general’s office declined to share any information about how much the operations are costing taxpayers.

“Since we are in the middle of the operation, it’s not possible to provide accurate costs to date,” said Krishna Jayaram, special assistant to the attorney general in an emailed statement. “The state agencies are funded so we can fulfill our law enforcement duties, and the state is committed to ensuring that lawfully permitted construction proceeds. To be clear, we are not providing public guards for a private project. We have proactively planned for and are responding to a situation where people’s safety is in jeopardy and a lawfully permitted project’s security is at risk.”

The anti-TMT activists have repeatedly said they are committed to protesting peacefully.

Reporters Yoohyun Jung and Blaze Lovell contributed to this report.

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