MAUNA KEA, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - After a lengthy visit Monday with TMT protesters blocking access to Mauna Kea’s summit, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said the controversial telescope project might have to “move on” if an agreement with its opponents can’t be reached.
He also said he’d urged the governor to remove law enforcement from the mountain.
“One project can’t be allowed to disrupt the fabric of our state’s ohana,” Green told Hawaii News Now. “So if there can’t be a brokered peace that prevents that, then the TMT would have to move on.”
Green is the highest-ranking public official to visit the large Big Island protest, which is blocking construction equipment for the Thirty Meter Telescope from ascending to Mauna Kea’s summit, and his statements Monday appear to indicate he’s not sure whether the project can be saved.
“I think we have to have a reckoning once and for all about if TMT should go forward," Green said. "If we go forward with the TMT without absolute buy-in from the Hawaiian people that will mean that we have not respected the Hawaiian people and after all, we are in Hawaii.”
In response, TMT officials said they remain “hopeful” that the project “can find a way forward." The statement continued: "TMT has become an icon for larger issues within the community. We respect those who express opposition and understand the pain they feel. However, whether or not TMT is built will not bring closure to it. We remain hopeful that we can find a way forward, with mutual respect.”
It’s been eight days since construction equipment for the $1 billion Thirty Meter Telescope was expected to ascend to the summit, prompting a large protest at the base of Mauna Kea. In the days since, protests have popped up across the state and nation, including in Hawaii’s no. 1 tourist destination of Waikiki.
Meanwhile on Monday, the Honolulu Police Department announced 56 officers who were sent to the Big Island last week to help authorities keep "roadways clear for the movement of construction equipment and vehicles” would return to Oahu.
“The officers come from non-patrol and support units on Oahu. Their salaries will be paid by the department, and other expenses, including overtime and airfare, will be reimbursed by the Attorney General’s Office,” the Honolulu Police Department said, in a statement.
With no end in sight to the protest at Mauna Kea, the state’s path forward grows increasingly muddy.
The governor on Friday said he’s not giving up on starting construction soon, but didn’t make clear how the state intends to resolve the stalemate. No arrests of protesters have happened since last Wednesday, when 34 people ― mostly kupuna ― were taken into custody, cited and then released.
Supporters of the telescope have also sought to ensure their voices are heard.
And a spokesman for the Thirty Meter Telescope reiterated over the weekend that Mauna Kea remains the facility’s preferred construction site and that officials are committed to starting construction soon.
“We have a lot of supporters in Hawaii asking us not to leave," TMT spokesman Scott Ishikawa told Hawaii News Now. “And at the same time, we know that’s not going to sit well with some. There’s been a lot of people expressing strong emotions over this and we regret that.”
Green’s meetings with protesters come three days after the governor angered TMT opponents by claiming there was drug and alcohol use at the Mauna Kea camp ― and that a state of emergency was still necessary to maintain order.
After speaking to kupuna at the protest, Green said he would personally ask the governor to “de-escalate the situation" by urging him to remove law enforcement from the protest site.
He also appeared to have been moved by the elders, saying he’s worried about their well-being as they remain in the elements.
After Green’s visit, some TMT opposition leaders called the lieutenant governor their secret advocate in the Governor’s Office and others say they were heartened by his visit.
“I’m very happy that he’s here to witness him himself what our puuhonua, our stance on the mauna looks like what it feels like that he can go back and tell the truth,” said TMT opposition leader Noe Noe Wong-Wilson.
The Governor’s Office didn’t comment on Green’s visit, but did seek Monday to clarify Gov. David Ige’s statements Friday regarding concerns about drinking and drug use at the camp.
An Ige spokesperson said law enforcement officers observed people drinking beer and smelled marijuana last week at the protest. The office said protesters subsequently patrolled areas to find violators and kick them out.
“We believe that is likely why there is no longer evidence of beer,” the Governor’s Office said.
Ige visited the Big Island on Friday, but didn’t meet with protesters.
That offended some TMT opponents, but others say the governor is doing what he can to tackle an incredibly difficult situation.
“Right now, I think he’s handling it very well,” said state Rep. Sylvia Luke, chairwoman of the House Finance Committee. “I think both parties ... are trying to be as peaceful as possible. In Hawaii, we have a tradition of honoring protest. This is not something that we want to discourage.”
Green visited Mauna Kea after wrapping up a 48-hour emergency room shift at Kohala Hospital. He said he treated several families that have been at the base of Mauna Kea — some of whom were “spiritually exhausted.” One person also had a severe heart problem, he said.
“I’m here to make sure people are OK,” Green said. “I’m not here for a political statement.”
But that’s exactly what many saw Green as doing. His visit stands in stark contrast to the governor’s statements on the protest, and comes after the lieutenant governor broke ranks last week with his boss over the use of the National Guard being deployed in response to the protest.
On Monday morning, roughly 80 National Guard soldiers were at Mauna Kea.
This story will be updated.