Hawaiian law enforcement officers on Wednesday began mass arrests of protesters blocking the access road to Mauna Kea to prevent construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope project, which Pasadena-based TMT International Observatory is beginning to build after a state commission gave it the go-ahead this month.
The roadblock protest entered its third day Wednesday morning.
By 10 a.m., more than 20 people had been arrested, Hawaii News Now reported. Those arrested, including many kupuna, or Native Hawaiian elderly, were led to waiting vans to be processed. The report said those arrested were sitting in tents blocking the access road to the mountain’s summit.
Officials believe the arrests could continue well into the afternoon, as those arrested are being replaced immediately by others from nearby tents, the report said.
The protesters said they came only to protect their sacred land and intend to continue blocking the road peacefully.
One of the protest leaders said they tried to negotiate with authorities to allow them access to the summit and perform some rituals, but no agreement was reached.
As the protests continue, the other existing observatories on the mountain are suspending operations to ensure safety for their personnel, who have been temporarily withdrawn from the summit.
“Our science time is precious, but in this case, our priority is just to make sure all of our staff is safe,” Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the East Asian Observatory on Mauna Kea, told AP.
Officers from the Hawaii Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement, also known as the Hawaii DLNR Police, started deploying around the base of the mountain early Tuesday to maintain order.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige has said unarmed National Guard units would be used to transport personnel and supplies and enforce road closures, but they would not be used in any law enforcement capacity during the protests.
Construction of the TMT project has been delayed for years after Native Hawaiian elders and conservationists challenged the state’s construction permit issued to the TMT consortium.
Last week, the Pasadena-based TIO announced the State of Hawaii had issued a formal Notice to Proceed for the project, and that construction was to begin Monday, July 15.
The TMT consortium members – which includes Caltech and other universities in California and Canada, with partners in China, India and Japan – are hopeful the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope will help them study the earliest moments of the universe after the Big Bang. They chose Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island because of the clear air and limited light pollution at its summit, making it one of the best locations for studying the heavens.
As the protests went on, a group of supporters of the TMT project also appeared near the base of the mountain, carrying placards that said “Yes! TMT,” “Support culture and science. Yes! TMT,” “Local Jobs for Local Families,” and “Reach for the Stars!”
TMT officials estimate the project could create 300 local and specialized union construction jobs during the eight- to 10-year construction phase and employ 140 staff when operational. TMT added it will be expending $26 million annually in observatory operations.
TMT said it is voluntarily paying an annual lease of $300,000 to Hawaii, which will increase incrementally to $1 million when the TMT becomes operational. Eighty percent of the lease goes towards the stewardship of Mauna Kea and 20 percent to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.