Law enforcement officials Friday tore down an illegal wooden structure erected by a faction of activists near the main camp of the opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope, and Gov. David Ige again said the state will not allow the Mauna Kea standoff to continue indefinitely — although access to the summit of the mountain has been blocked since July.
“We both recognize and are committed to enforcing the law. … We know that this unlawful behavior on the part of the protesters will not be allowed to continue forever. We are hopeful that we can find a peaceful solution,” Ige said Friday at a news conference.
“I want everyone to remember that the TMT project is lawfully permitted to proceed,” Ige told reporters. “We do believe that it is an important project for the state of Hawaii. Most importantly, (Mayor Harry Kim) and I are committed to enforcing the law and in ensuring a safe and peaceful access for everyone on Hawaii island.”
Two people were arrested Friday morning as law enforcement officials moved in to tear down the structure.
Live Facebook footage from the scene showed a state Department of Transportation crew member using a front-end loader shortly before 10 a.m. to begin crushing and removing the walls of the building. The structure was demolished within minutes, and it took workers about four hours to load lumber and other materials into dump trucks to be hauled away.
One observer at the site estimated that the work crew and heavy equipment were accompanied by about 100 law enforcement officers, and video showed protesters gathered outside of a perimeter established by state sheriff’s deputies, Department of Land and Natural Resources enforcement officers and Hawaii County police.
State Attorney General Clare Connors said two unidentified men were arrested for obstruction of a government operation when they refused to comply with orders from law enforcement officers that they leave the area near the building.
In a statement posted on their Facebook page Pu‘u- honua o Pu‘uhuluhulu Maunakea, leaders of the protests said that “this is a highly emotional moment and we ask that everyone remain in kapu aloha as we get through this day.” “Kapu aloha” is a term often used to describe nonviolent action.
“We condemn every example of the state of Hawaii’s selective enforcement of the law, especially as it is currently targeting protectors. Undeterred by today’s actions of the state, all in the puuhonua remain united and committed to the protection of Maunakea in kapu aloha,” said the statement from the protest leaders, including the Hawaiian elders at the camp.
There were no reports of any violence Friday at the site near Mauna Kea Access Road, which is being blocked by protesters opposed to the $1.4 billion TMT project. At times the protests have attracted thousands of TMT opponents, but the demonstrations have been nonviolent ever since the access road was closed July 15.
Mauna Kea is considered sacred by some Hawaiians, and the protesters believe construction of the telescope near the summit would be a desecration. On July 17 law enforcement officials arrested 38 people as they blocked the roadway to prevent construction equipment from reaching the summit area to begin work on the project.
The illegal structure was on Hawaiian home lands, and the department requested state help from other state agencies to remove it. Connors said state officials posted a notice Wednesday warning the activists that the structure would be torn down.
She said the building raised concerns because it had no state or county permits or other approvals, and the activists did not have permission to build on the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands property. She said the illegal structure also raised the possibility that invasive species could be brought into an environmentally fragile area.
Ige said the building was reportedly built to be a children’s learning facility, but such facilities are strictly regulated by the state. The activists did not comply with those requirements either, he said.
Connors said there were several children on the lanai of the structure when authorities moved in at about 8:30 a.m., but the activists quickly removed the children.
Workers tasked with demolishing the structure found the windows were blacked out, and encountered a barricade with a Hawaii flag nailed to it to block the entrance. Ed Sniffen, DOT’s deputy director for highways, said the crew cut through the barricade to enter the structure to be sure no one was inside before it was torn down.
In the process workers cut though the flag. A second flag flown above the structure was removed, and both flags were returned to the protesters, Sniffen said.
“There was no intent to desecrate a flag,” Connors said. “The first flag, however, was in a position where there was no option but to cut through the flag in order to get into the facility so that they could do the proper safety checks.”
The structure, built on a lava field near the main camp of protesters at Puu Huluhulu, was a source of some division among the protesters who have been blocking Mauna Kea Access Road to try to prevent construction of the TMT.
One group of demonstrators did most of the work assembling the building over the Labor Day weekend, but the Royal Order of Kamehameha I issued a statement Tuesday saying it did not “endorse or sanction” the building. The Royal Order established the puuhonua, or place of refuge, at Puu Huluhulu that is serving as a hub of the protest activity.
“While we remain steadfast in our commitment for the pu‘uhonua to be a safe haven for our people until we are sure our mauna is protected, we have no intention of establishing a permanent village within this refuge,” the order said in the statement.
“We have informed the individuals building the structure that neither the Royal Order of Kamehameha nor Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu endorse or sanction the construction of immobile structures. We remain committed to maintaining only a temporary presence and a light footprint within the boundaries of the Pu‘uhonua.”
Hawaiian Homes Commission Chairman William J. Aila Jr. announced Tuesday that law enforcement officials had notified the activists that the structure is unpermitted.
“Given the health, safety, and environmental concerns, the department prioritized the prompt removal of the structure,” Aila said in a statement. He added that DHHL will reimburse the other agencies involved for their costs.
Officials with the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs issued their own statement criticizing the razing of the structure Friday, saying it “brings into sharp focus the longstanding and particularly abhorrent double standard the state uses to enforce land use laws against Native Hawaiians as opposed to others.”
The statement from OHA Chairwoman Colette Machado, Interim Chief Executive Officer Sylvia Hussey and Dan Ahuna, chairman of the OHA board’s Ad Hoc Committee on Maunakea, said the state “has a long history of expressly allowing unpermitted and unauthorized astronomy structures that were far larger and located in far more environmentally- and culturally-sensitive areas of the mountain.”
That includes the first three telescopes that were built near the summit of Maunakea, which failed to apply for a conservation district use permit. Those structures were unpermitted for at least six years, according to the OHA statement.