TMT Won't Begin Construction At This Time, Ige To Withdraw Law Enforcement From Mauna Kea

Updated: Dec. 19, 3:57 p.m.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige says he is withdrawing state law enforcement officers from Mauna Kea after being informed that the $1.6 billion Thirty Meter Telescope won't proceed with construction at this time. 

The governor said he hopes withdrawing law enforcement from the mountain will help to deescalate the situation, which has been deadlocked for five months.

The TMT International Organization, which is overseeing the development of the telescope, is pursuing an alternate site in the Canary Islands, but has not withdrawn from Hawaii. 

In a statement Thursday, Gordon Squires, TMT vice president for external relations, said Mauna Kea remains TMT's preferred site but he expressed frustration at the lack of open access to Mauna Kea.

"Over the last five months, we participated in frequent discussions with the State on finding a peaceful, lawful and non-violent way forward on Maunakea. We don’t want to put our workers, the people of Hawaii, and the protestors at risk. Unfortunately, the state and Hawaii County have not demonstrated that they are able to provide safe, sustained access to Maunakea for everyone," Squires said in a release.

He said Mauna Kea Access Road should be open to all and should not be predicated on TMT's timing to start construction. He told HPR Thursday afternoon that he would not characterize TMT's action as a temporary halt to construction because building never started. Rather, he said, construction won't begin at this time. He gave no timetable on when that might change.

Squires confirmed that the project had received the required permits to build on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands, but reiterated that there are no plans to begin construction there and that Hawaii remains the preferred location.

The governor's announcement comes one day after the Hawaii County Council voted unanimously to reject state funds to continue the law enforcement action.

Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim said county police will withdraw all police personnel from Maunakea by 3:30 p.m. Friday. He said in a statement that the county is "working to establish communication with kiaʻi to address the current situation, with the intent of restoring flow of traffic and public access to Maunakea Road to all of the community."

Ige said he hopes to restore normal access to the summit, which the state closed to the public in July. Astronomers, vital maintenance personnel, and a limited number of cultural practitioners have been granted access to the summit throughout the five-month standoff.

As many as 2,000 protesters, who call themselves kia’i or protectors, assembled at the base of the Mauna Kea access road in July to block the movement of telescope construction equipment. The number of people at the blockade has since dwindled to 100 or fewer, but with a larger footprint of tents and support infrastructure.

The state has spent $15 million on law enforcement costs since the protest began. The law enforcement withdrawal announced on Thursday appears to be an abrupt reversal.

At a press conference earlier this week, the governor said his supplemental budget request contained funds for maintaining the presence on Mauna Kea, but declined to specify a dollar amount.

University of Hawaii President David Lassner, who is responsible for overseeing astronomy on the Mauna Kea summit, acknowledged the latest development in a written statement and said that he hopes the standdown will “provide a period of reflection” to seek a peaceful path forward.

Whether the withdrawal of law enforcement will break the deadlock remains to be seen. Kealoha Piscotta, a former telescope worker turned organizer of with the anti-TMT movement said Ige's announcement doesn't change anything.

"The Governor kept saying he didn't know how long, so what does that mean? For us, we're not temporary, we're committed." 

Following the Governor's annoucnement, the Honolulu Star Advertiser reported that officers with the Department of Land and Natrual Resources told protest leaders that anyone blocking the road after December 26th would face arrest.

A spokesperson for Governor Ige said the Governor's Office could not comment on operational details. 

This is a developing story and will be updated throughout the day.