'Unconscionable’: Altitude sickness in officers assigned to Mauna Kea draws concern

Updated: Oct. 19, 2019 at 7:04 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - In September, HGEA filed a grievance expressing concerns about Department of Public Safety officers getting altitude sickness while working on Mauna Kea.

The letter said at least four deputy sheriffs and one attorney general investigator assigned to the TMT protest were evacuated from Mauna Kea and hospitalized.

"It's disturbing and it's concerning because it's been a while and they've been up there too long," said Kelli Keawe, union steward in the Department of Public Safety.

Sources told Hawaii News Now half a dozen to a dozen officers are stationed at Hale Pohaku at 9,000 feet while their bosses stay in hotels. The summit is at nearly 14,000 feet.

The protest camp by Daniel K. Inouye Highway (Saddle Road) is at 6,000 feet.

Sources say state law enforcement officers work on the mountain eight days and then have 14 days off, but are still on call.

Their symptoms of altitude sickness included spiking blood pressure, vision problems and cognitive issues such as slurred speech and inability to complete sentences.

The Attorney General and Public Safety Department won’t comment on operational details, but say state officers work on rotations to guard against altitude sickness.

Both agencies "are concerned for the health and well-being of our law enforcement officers who have been assigned to this operation," said a joint statement.

Lawmakers say the situation is a concern.

“I think it’s unconscionable and poor management,” said state Sen. Clarence Nishihara.

State Sen. Karl Rhoads, a TMT supporter, wonders why law enforcement is even needed right now.

"Just sitting up there sort of babysitting. They want to be up there, they want to be up there. There's no reason that I'm aware that we should be patrolling that at any extra level," said Rhoads.

Mark Chun, associate Director for Institute for Astronomy at UH Hilo, says because of altitude sickness telescope workers never work alone and always make plans at sea level before they drive up the highway on Saddle Road. Once on the mountain, they adhere to their plans to avoid mistakes.

“If you just drive over the Saddle Road, you can feel it at the 6,000 foot level and certainly when you get up to Hale Pohaku you notice it,” he said.

“It is hard to work up there. You can become confused pretty easily,” he added.

Nishihara added he’ll propose a resolution in January to create a Senate investigative committee on Mauna Kea with subpoena powers because as the stalemate drags on, questions need to be answered.

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