MAUNA KEA, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The governor announced Thursday he’s pulling state law enforcement from Mauna Kea amid the ongoing standoff with Thirty Meter Telescope protesters at the base of the summit, but stressed his administration is not abandoning the project.
In a news conference Thursday, Gov. David Ige said the pullout is temporary and was ordered after Thirty Meter Telescope officials indicated the project “would not be proceeding with construction at this time.” While he said law enforcement would return, he said there’s no firm timeline for that.
“We will be working with the project to see when they would be ready to begin construction,” he said.
After the governor’s announcement, Big Island Mayor Harry Kim said county police officers would also withdraw from the mountain beginning Friday afternoon.
“It is my goal that this will be the beginning of a true meeting with all parties to see how this issue can be resolved, in finding a way forward,” Mayor Kim said, in a news release.
In a statement, TMT said it sought to put construction on hold because it had concerns the state was unable to provide safe access for everyone.
State law enforcement personnel started leaving the mountain Wednesday night.
The law enforcement pullout is another black eye for an administration that’s been unable to find a resolution to the five-month standoff with protesters at the base of the summit.
When asked what message the state’s decision sends to the wider business community, Ige said that he’s assured the TMT that the “county and the state working together could provide safe access.”
Gordon Squires, TMT vice president for external relations, pushed back against that characterization in a statement, saying the state and Hawaii County “have not demonstrated that they are able to provide safe, sustained access to Mauna Kea for everyone.”
He continued: “We are sensitive to the ongoing struggles of indigenous populations around the world, and we will continue to support conversations around TMT and the larger issues for which it has become a flashpoint. We are participating in private conversations with community leaders, but these conversations will take time.”
In an internal memo, the governor’s chief of staff said Ige has expressed his “severe disappointment that TMT will not move forward for now, despite months of often intense behind-the-scenes discussions among protesters, telescope owners and state and county officials.”
“Those efforts will continue, and the governor anticipates that activity on the project will resume in the future," Chief of Staff Linda Chu Takayama wrote in the memo, which was reviewed by HNN.
In a statement, UH President David Lassner said he “acknowledges the reduction of state law enforcement presence on Mauna Kea” and hopes the pullout will provide a “period of reflection for all to continue to seek a positive, peaceful and non-violent path forward.”
He also said that UH continues to support the construction of TMT.
TMT opponents say state Land Department officers told them they have until Dec. 26 to start removing their structures at Mauna Kea, but say haven’t made a decision on what they’ll do ultimately.
Kahookahi Kanuha, a leader of the TMT opposition, said protesters believe the state’s withdrawal is a “tactic ... to create this picture, this facade reality, that TMT is no longer a threat to Mauna Kea.”
The plan to pull state law enforcement from the mountain comes as costs for tackling the situation continue to mount ― along with frustrations amid the project’s supporters. Since the standoff started, the government has spent $15 million for law enforcement and supplies to deal with the situation.
Protesters of the TMT project have remained at the base of Mauna Kea for 158 days, standing their ground in opposition of the project. They say the 18-story, $1.4 billion telescope will desecrate Mauna Kea, which they consider as sacred, and have garnered support for their cause from around the globe.
But TMT supporters say the project has done everything right ― and has all the necessary approvals.
They also note that since 2015, there have been four failed attempts to get construction vehicles to the summit of Mauna Kea.
This is the full text of the internal memo sent by the governor’s chief of staff:
As you may know, state personnel have been deployed at the request of the Hawai’i County Police Department to help ensure safe access of Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) equipment and personnel to its construction site. The state has been standing ready for some time to open the road to allow the Thirty-Meter Telescope International Observatory (TIO) to begin construction of TMT.
TIO has now informed the state that is not prepared to move forward with construction of TMT on Mauna Kea at this time. As a result, the state will immediately begin demobilizing the full-time deployment of state law enforcement personnel at Mauna Kea, although they will continue to be available to support Hawaii County efforts to eventually restore full public access on Mauna Kea Access Road.
State closed the road in anticipation of construction equipment moving. With no action planned by TIO, it will no longer be closed by the State, although it may take some time for operations to return to normal. It is our understanding that Hawaii County will give the protesters time to remove the unauthorized structures and materials before undertakings its own clearance procedures.
The Governor expressed his severe disappointment that TMT will not move forward for now, despite months of often intense behind-the-scenes discussions among protesters, telescope owners and state and county officials. Those efforts will continue, and the Governor anticipates that activity on the project will resume in the future.
This story will be updated.