An attempt to restart construction on what would be one of the world’s largest telescopes was blocked yesterday, after state authorities escorting construction vehicles clashed with protesters blockading the road to the summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano.
Officers from Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), and construction workers for the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT), turned back from the summit shortly after noon Wednesday, citing concerns for public safety after finding the road blocked by boulders.
The withdrawal followed several hours of clashes with Native Hawaiian protesters blockading the road, culminating in the arrests of 11 men and women, including several protest organizers. The protesters have said the $1.4 billion TMT would desecrate sacred land.
“We had a major confrontation today,” says Andre Perez, an organizer with Oahu-based Movement for Aloha No ka Aina, who was among those arrested. He says the protesters had deployed small groups of people to block the road at regular intervals over several kilometers, starting above the Mauna Kea visitor center at about 2700 meters up the 4200 meter high mountain. County police and state DLNR officers arrived on the scene around 7 a.m. “They were intent on escorting construction workers to the top of the island, and we were intent on preventing that,” Perez says.
Protesters succeeded in delaying authorities as they moved up the mountain, Perez says, but began to fall back as confrontations grew more heated. “(The officers) started shoving people and pushing. They were grabbing people,” he says. “The crowd kept getting thicker and thicker as they fell back. I just sat down in the road, and they told me that if I didn’t get up they were going to handcuff me and carry me off, and that’s what they did.”
Perez says he was “elated” to learn later that officers had turned back from the summit. “I think it’s going to galvanize us and make us stronger, boost our morale and conviction,” he says.
Hours after posting bail, he and other protesters were heading back to Mauna Kea with plans to continue their blockade.
In a statement calling the arrests “unfortunate,” Mike McCartney, chief of staff to Hawaii Governor David Ige (D), said safety was the state’s top concern on Mauna Kea. He was speaking for Ige, who is out of state.
“We are disappointed and concerned that large boulders were found in the roadway leading to the summit of Mauna Kea. This action is a serious and significant safety hazard and could put people at risk,” McCartney said. He said the state would be reassessing how to proceed, and that construction would be on hold until further notice while teams cleared the roadway.
TMT board chair Henry Yang said in a statement Wednesday that workers had turned back after finding boulders in the road and being told by DLNR officials that it was unsafe to proceed. He said work would resume when the issue was resolved.
Perez said moving the stones “was not something that we sanctioned,” but was apparently done by some of the protesters working on their own overnight.
Walter Ritte, a longtime Native Hawaiian activist who was on Mauna Kea this week, said the groups had planned for a peaceful protest, but that officers’ use of force escalated the situation. He said the confrontation was far less civil than protests that led to the arrests of 31 men and women in April.
“It was traumatic,” Ritte says. “There was lots of yelling and screaming and tears.” He says seeing the officers and construction vehicles turned back felt like vindication. “Nobody reached the top of the mountain, so it was a victory for us,” he says. “It was absolutely great.”
The TMT’s governing board announced on 20 June that construction would resume, a month after Hawaii’s governor David Ige announced a proposed compromise that would include accelerating the removal of a quarter of the 13 telescopes already on Mauna Kea, while allowing construction of the TMT to proceed.
With all of its approvals and permits in place after more than 7 years of public review, Ige has acknowledged that the TMT team has the legal right to proceed with construction.
The Hawaiian groups protesting the project have previously said the compromise would not address their concerns.
No work has been done at the site since construction was put on hold in April, following the arrest of 31 protesters.
Protesters say the massive telescope would be a further desecration to one of the most sacred sites in Hawaiian religion and culture. They describe a history of mismanagement of the summit area by the state government and University of Hawaii, which has held a master lease on more than 11,000 acres of the mountaintop since 1968.