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Gov. David Ige and Mayor Harry Kim decided Thursday to pull state and county law enforcement off Mauna Kea after a five-month standoff with protesters over the planned Thirty Meter Telescope project.
“We will be withdrawing personnel to enjoy the holidays with everyone else,” Ige told reporters at a press conference.
But it’s unclear what that means for the future of the $1.4 billion project. The surprise move seemed to create more confusion than clarity, even among stakeholders.
Ige said TMT International Observatory is “not abandoning Hawaii” and that this decision does not necessarily change anything. The governor gave no timeline as to when law enforcement might return, saying that depends on when TMT wants to resume its effort to start construction and Hawaii County asking for the state’s help.
But project officials are waiting on the state to ensure that they can keep the road clear, which they have failed to do, as well as address longstanding issues facing the Native Hawaiian community.
Meanwhile, a state officer told the protesters Thursday that there were plans to sweep the road Dec. 26 — a move which seemed to confuse protesters and government officials alike.
The immediate future of the project that has been opposed by many Native Hawaiians and supported by the state is uncertain, as is the likelihood that the activists will abandon their strategic position on Mauna Kea Access Road.
It’s unclear how the observatory will move forward though if construction vehicles remain unable to reach the site near the 13,000-foot summit. Under the state permit, TMT has until September 2021 to begin construction.
This would be the second time the state has de-escalated law enforcement on Mauna Kea. When the project first tried moving in 2015, Ige called for a stand-down about a month later after construction vehicles were unable to reach the site.
Whenever that time comes, Ige said state officers would be available if Hawaii County requests them.
For now, Kim said he plans to remove county police at 3:30 p.m. Friday.
Reached by phone Thursday afternoon, the mayor said he hopes his administration and the protesters, who call themselves kiai or protectors, can still work toward a resolution.
Kim said he’s waiting to hear back from the leaders of the movement to work things out. He said he would be open to allowing them to remain on the sides of the road.
He acknowledged that Ige has again handed him the responsibility of maintaining public access to the county road.
Kahookahi Kanuha, who’s acted as a spokesman for the movement, said that the activists have no plans yet to vacate the mountain.
He said activist leaders met around noon Thursday with Lino Kamakau, Hawaii island branch chief of the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement.
Kamakau informed the group that officers planned to return Dec. 26 to conduct arrests, if necessary, to clear the road. Kanuha was informed by Kamakau that the officers may use increased force this time compared to the arrests in July.
“Ultimately, what happens to the road is up to the kupuna.” — Kahookahi Kanuha
This could mean the use of pepper spray or other chemical agents, Kanuha said. The activists are still deciding whether or not to stay come next Thursday.
“Ultimately, what happens to the road is up to the kupuna,” Kanuha said, referring to the elders who have occupied a tent on Mauna Kea Access Road since July. “The decision is up to them, and we’ll support them in that decision.”
The state reopened access to the road — and the mountain — Thursday morning, he said. The protesters carved out a path for cars to follow around the kupuna tent to follow Mauna Kea Access Road.
Kanuha said that arrangement will work until at least Monday, adding that Kamakau plans to dispatch two officers each day to inform the activists of state plans and how to comply.
Another standoff, or a repeat of prior arrests at protests, is just the kind of thing TMT wants to avoid, said Gordon Squires, TMT’s vice president for external relations.
The telescope is being developed by an international consortium including the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, the National Institutes of Natural Sciences of Japan, the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Department of Science and Technology of India and Canada’s National Research Council.
In a written statement, Squires said the project is still committed to Hawaii and finding a peaceful way forward — a sentiment that project and government officials have repeated since protests began anew in July.
“We don’t want to put our workers, the people of Hawaii, and the protestors at risk,” he said. “Unfortunately, the state and Hawaii County have not demonstrated that they are able to provide safe, sustained access to Maunakea for everyone. For us, this dates all the way back to our groundbreaking in October 2014 and subsequent attempts to begin construction in April and June 2015 and in July 2019.”
In response to Squires’ statement, Kim said he can understand their disappointment.
“It’s obviously true. That was not accomplished,” Kim said of keeping Mauna Kea Access Road open.
In a phone interview Thursday afternoon, Squires said the state must ensure the road can be kept cleared, and that the state has a plan for addressing other issues activists have brought up including management of the Department of Hawaiian Homelands and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as well as more systemic issues.
Squires said the state must demonstrate “some real leadership” in addressing those issues.
Without those being addressed, TMT has no clear timeline for returning, Squires said, adding that the project has taken things day by day since July.
“It’s hard to assess what the conditions are to say we should restart,” Squires said.
Kim said he is still committed to finding a peaceful way forward. He said Thursday afternoon that he was still waiting on a call from protest leaders to discuss next steps.
The mayor also wants to avoid mass arrests.
“I don’t want to be coy, but if you want to do it with armed personnel to ensure safety, sure it can be done that way,” Kim said. “But do I want it to be done that way? No, I want it to be done a better way, where concerns are addressed.”
Kim already attempted to come to a peaceful solution and spent weeks of work on a pamphlet which made much of the same recommendations that have been made over the years regarding the TMT project.
This came after legal action and protests held TMT at bay for nearly a decade.
But several hundred protesters, some of whom chained themselves to a cattle grate to block construction vehicles, met state officers at the intersection of Mauna Kea Access Road and the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, also known as Saddle Road.
A total of 38 arrests were made in July after elders remained in the road.
They observe kapu aloha, a phrase that refers to the disciplined behavior that has been central to the peaceful protests.
Sam King II, who leads a pro-TMT group, struck a conciliatory tone Thursday and applauded Ige for de-escalating the situation on Mauna Kea.
“Ultimately, I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “We want the road open. Everyone to go back to families for holidays.”
King said the project should be granted an extension since protests have delayed it.
Ige’s announcement comes on the heels of an $80 million budget request this week to the Legislature for “public safety operational requirements.” Some of that money could go to fund law enforcement stationed on Mauna Kea, though it’s unclear how much that is. DOCARE wrote in a budget request that they don’t have funds to sustain operations there without additional money.
Ige’s announcement came a day after the Hawaii County Council rejected an agreement between Kim and the state that could have granted the county $10 million in reimbursements, mostly for police overtime.
It also came at a time where there’s mounting pressure on the state to act quickly on Mauna Kea.
The Office of Mauna Kea Management, the University of Hawaii’s oversight board for the mountain, is expected to vote Friday on a resolution put forward by its Native Hawaiian Council that calls on the state to enforce its laws in regards to the protests.
“There will be no effective management unless both civil and criminal law is enforced on Maunakea,” the letter says.
In a statement Thursday, UH President David Lassner acknowledged the reduction of state law enforcement presence on Mauna Kea initiated by Ige.
“These past months have been difficult for everyone, and we deeply hope this provides a period of reflection for all to continue to seek a positive, peaceful and non-violent path forward on Maunakea and for Hawaiʻi,” Lassner said.
UH, which subleases the summit of Mauna Kea from the state, continues to support the construction of TMT, he said. Lassner said the project is “part of a positive future for modern world-class astronomy on Maunakea, as we also embrace the decommissioning of multiple telescopes on the mauna and the commitments to stewardship, education and culture embedded in the permit conditions for the TMT and the resolutions of our Board of Regents.”
In the meantime, the Hawaii County Board of Ethics is calling for a state inquiry into the months-long standoff.
“If we use county resources to control people denying access, is that really the county’s purpose? Its public purpose?” Rick Robinson, chair of the ethics board, said at a Dec. 11 meeting.
The activists have put pressure on the state to abandon its support of the telescope.
UH would get 7.5% of viewing time if TMT is built on Mauna Kea. But project leaders are also eyeing a spot in Spain’s Canary Islands on La Palma.
Mauna Kea has been the preferred site, but another on the island off the coast of Africa could also be suitable. Permits are already moving through the local government there, but local environmental activists say they could sue to stop the project.
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