As TMT protest at Mauna Kea swells, governor struggles to find way forward
HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The governor said Friday he wants to meet with TMT opponents staging a growing protest at the base of Mauna Kea, but also appeared to inflame tensions by claiming protesters were using drugs and alcohol at the site ― a claim they vehemently denied.
Meanwhile, in a short statement Friday, Thirty Meter Telescope Executive Director Ed Stone characterized the stalemate ― which has prevented construction equipment for the telescope from getting to the summit ― as creating a “very difficult and urgent situation for us.”
“TMT has been very patient. We worked very long and very hard to comply with all laws and regulations. We’ve also worked long and hard with the community and to develop understanding and respect for the culture,” Stone said.
“We are and have been prepared to access the site, but our legal rights to access have been blocked. We don’t have the power to clear the blockade. We need to depend on law enforcement to do that.”
But there are no indications the protest, now in its fifth day, will end anytime soon.
The protesters have vowed to stand their ground ― even after the arrests of 34 people Wednesday ― and the governor says he’s committed to making sure TMT gets built.
To do that, equipment needs to ascend an access road to Mauna Kea’s summit that’s blocked by protesters, nearly 1,000 of whom have now congregated at the base of the mountain. Ige offered no evidence Friday that he knows how the state will go about moving them, if it does at all.
Speaking from Hilo after a day of meetings with county and state officials, Ige said he has no plans to lift an emergency declaration for Mauna Kea but won’t call in more National Guard troops, either.
He also extended an invitation to leaders of the protest to meet.
“We look forward to finding a pathway that can resolve differences and keep our community safe. I remain committed to finding those places of common ground," he said.
He added that the state has been “very patient” with the protesters, but that he’s "not going to take action that jeopardizes the safety of people.”
The governor traveled to the Big Island in the wake of his decision to issue a state of emergency for the mountain, which critics have called unwarranted and unnecessary.
Ige said Friday that the emergency declaration is needed given the scale of the protest and the number of agencies involved.
He also claimed that some protesters had engaged in drinking and drug use, and that the camp did not have adequate toilet or hygiene facilities, prompting environmental concerns.
“Leaders of a puuhonua have not been able to maintain order and the neutral terms of the puuhonua. The emergency proclamation remains in effect because of this unsafe situation," he said.
The statements angered protesters, who held a news conference of their own to issue a rebuttal.
Kahookahi Kanuha, one of the longtime leaders of the opposition to the Thirty Meter Telescope, said the governor would have to issue a public apology before he would meet with him.
“I am not willing to meet with a liar,” he said.
“The governor again has shown us that he is desperate. It seems that he has no other choice but to manipulate the public, manipulate the minds of the community through lie after lie after lie. His foundation is falling apart rock by rock. We are here showing unity."
Despite being on the Big Island for most of the day, Ige made no move to meet with the protesters but said he wants to do so at a future time.
“I am asking the leaders of the protest to meet,” he said, in a news conference.
The Big Island visit comes as Ige faces mounting criticism over his handling of the TMT protest, especially in the wake of the arrests of 34 protesters ― all but one of whom are kupuna.
On Friday, in a post on Facebook, Lt. Gov. Josh Green appeared to publicly disagree with his boss on the governor’s decision to call in the National Guard with his emergency declaration.
“I trust and respect the National Guard, however, my belief is they should only be used when there is no other way to protect life and safety,” Green said, in a post on Facebook.
“In my opinion no single project, not any, is important enough to allow ourselves to damage the fabric of our ohana in Hawaii.”
It’s not immediately clear how many National Guard troops have been called in, but Ige said they have been charged with transportation and other duties ― not crowd control.
The Mauna Kea protest ― 600- to 1,000-strong since Monday ― is aimed at preventing construction equipment from getting to the planned site for the $1 billion Thirty Meter Telescope.
Since the arrests Wednesday, no other protesters have been taken into custody. But those gathered at the base of Mauna Kea say they’re bracing for potential action in the coming days.
From the start, the governor has said the protesters are breaking the law and that the state is obligated to ensure construction equipment for the telescope can get to the summit.
He said his issuance of a state of emergency was necessary because protesters had overwhelmed law enforcement and blocked roads.
“Even though law enforcement has done everything it can to talk and reason with protesters, the protesters continue to break the law," the governor said Wednesday.
But critics have called the governor’s emergency proclamation an abuse of power and the arrest of dozens of elders an embarrassment to the state.
HNN legal analyst Ken Lawson questioned the need for the state of emergency.
Lawson protested police misconduct in Cincinnati when some of protests turned violent with riots, and said that’s when an emergency proclamation is needed.
“I think it’s an abuse of power or really what it’s saying is if you want to exercise your right under the Constitution ... to peaceful nonviolent protest, I can use an emergency ordinance to basically undermine your First Amendment right,” he said.
This story will be updated.
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