State Takes Down TMT Protest Structures As Mauna Kea Telescope Construction Gets Green Light

Jun 20, 2019

Healani Sonoda-Pale, chair of the Ka Lāhui Hawai'i Political Action Committee, expresses her frustration with plans to move forward with construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.
Credit Amy Nakamura / HPR

Updated: June 21, 12:29 p.m.

The controversial Thirty-Meter Telescope is moving ahead again, setting the stage for another round of protests. Gov. David Ige announced on Thursday that the project received a notice to proceed, meaning building of the telescope can resume on the summit of Mauna Kea.

In preparation for construction, state officials dismantled four structures erected by project opponents and restricted access to the Mauna Kea summit.

During a press conference, Ige said  the international consortium has been cleared by the Hawaii Supreme Court to lawfully proceed with the building under its permit and the state is enforcing that decision.

Protesters say Mauna Kea is sacred to Hawaiian culture and religion and the telescope would violate their beliefs. Numerous demonstrations over the past five years have delayed construction of the telescope.

In December 2015, the Supreme Court first ruled the project's permits were invalid because they were issued before a contested case hearing. The state Board of Land and Natural Resources then issued a revised permit in September 2017, which the Supreme Court ruled in October 2018 was valid, clearing the way for construction to resume.

Left to right: David Lassner, president of the University of Hawai'i, Attorney General Clare Connors, Gov. David Ige, and Suzanne Case, chair of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, at a press conference, June 20, 2019, on the latest development in the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi / HPR

The structures taken down this week were erected by those calling themselves kiaʻi or protectors of mountain. Two were ahu or altars symbolizing the cultural and religious significance of Mauna Kea for native Hawaiians. The removal angered those who oppose the telescope like Kealoha Pisciotta.

"I just cannot believe how disrespectful [the dismantling is] and profoundly hurt I am to witness this," Pisciotta said.

State officials said the ahu were located on the TMT building site and were removed with guidance from Native Hawaiian cultural advisors. State Attorney General Clare Connors said the unauthorized structures were removed so construction can proceed safely.

"There are rules about constructing things on Mauna Kea. Obviously, TMT had to get a permit. Permission is needed," Connors said. "There are a whole lot of stewardship reasons as to why those rules matter and why those kinds of structures in these areas have to be authorized."

Scott Ishikawa, spokesman for the TMT international consortium which is building the telescope, could not say when building might begin.

"Obviously, the biggest question is when we’re going to start work and obviously we would like to start as soon as possible. With that, though, we have to sit down with the state and county officials to determine an official start date," he said.

He said he hopes state and county officials are able to provide safe access to TMT workers once construction begins.

When asked whether demonstrations could turn violent, kiaʻi Kahoʻokahi Kanuha said protesters plan to continue their demonstrations but will do so peacefully as they've done in the past.

Kanuha was arrested Thursday on Mauna Kea and charged with obstruction of government operations when he tried to film the removal of the altars.

Ige says the state is committed to allowing everyone to exercise their rights, including those who choose to peaceably protest. But he said health and safety are a top priority.

"And certainly we will be taking the actions we believe necessary to assure that safety," he said.

The state will continue to provide access to Mauna Kea until construction begins, at which point access may be limited to ensure the safety of TMT workers.