TMT Won't Begin Construction At This Time, Protesters Told To Clear Mauna Kea

Updated: Dec. 20, 6:45 a.m.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige announced Thursday he is withdrawing state law enforcement officers from Mauna Kea after informed that the $1.6 billion Thirty Meter Telescope won't proceed with construction at this time. Protesters who have stopped construction of the telescope say they were told to move out by Dec. 26 or face arrest.

A spokeswoman for the governor declined to confirm the Dec. 26 deadline, saying the administration is not disclosing "operational details."

"We can confirm that law enforcement officers onsite continue to talk with the protestors about restoring full public access on Mauna Kea Access Road," Communications Director Cindy McMillan said in an email.

The governor said Thursday that 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which is overseeing the development of the telescope, is pursuing an alternate site in the Canary Islands, but has not withdrawn from Hawaii.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 on Thursday, Gordon Squires, TMT vice president for external relations, expressed frustration with the lack of progress in opening 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 return 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 protesters believe that Mauna Kea is sacred and that TMT's construction would be a desecration of the land. The mountain, the highest in the state, is one of the premier locations for astronomical research in the world and hosts 13 working telescopes at or near its summit. 

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." 

In a Facebook video posted Thursday, leaders of the protesters said they were told by a state Department of Land and Natural Resources officer that they and their structures need to clear off the access road by the Dec. 26 deadline or face arrests. 

"This is simply a tactic by the governor by these state agencies, these county agencies, to try to leverage us and force us into a position where we feel forced off of the road," said spokesman Kaho'okahi Kanuha.

The group urged supporters to remain vigilant in the event they are called to join the protest in Mauna Kea.

In July, over 30 protesters, many of them kupuna or elders, were arrested for obstruction. They rejected a plea deal and face trial Friday in a Hilo courtroom. 

This is a developing story and will be updated as news develops.