Lā 226: DLNR chief vows to protect TMT contractors

By NANCY COOK LAUER West Hawaii Today   Friday | November 06, 2015

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The contractors building the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea have a right to be up there, the chairwoman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said Thursday, adding that the state will enforce the laws over which it has jurisdiction to ensure they are unmolested by protesters.

DLNR chairwoman Suzanne Case was speaking to a mainly sympathetic audience at a luncheon in Hilo sponsored by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Hawaii.

“TMT has a right to move forward with its preliminary site work,” Case said. “They’ve gone up there two times; they have a right to continue. Our job is to make sure our enforcement personnel, as far as DLNR is concerned, our laws are upheld.”

Protesters, who have raised issues of Hawaiian sovereignty and concerns about environmental impacts, have blocked construction vehicles several times since late March. Dozens have been arrested on the mountain.

Case said enforcement to keep the road open is the county Police Department’s jurisdiction. The department did not respond to a detailed email and telephone message by press time Thursday.

“Obviously, it’s illegal for anyone to block roads,” Case said. “The county is responsible for enforcing that.”

The controversy has put a hold on grubbing and grading work by the TMT International Observatory.

Meanwhile, the Hawaii Supreme Court is considering a legal challenge of the project’s Conservation District land use permit. Following oral arguments in August, it’s unknown when the court will issue its ruling.

Asked if the state has assured the TMT contractors that their equipment and safety will be protected if they go back to work, Case referred the question to the governor’s office.

A spokeswoman for Gov. David Ige said Thursday the governor has said all along that TMT has the state permits and approvals to move ahead with the project and, as governor, he is required to ensure that TMT is able to move forward with the project.

Ige is out of the country, but he said at an Oct. 26 forum in Honolulu that, “When I became governor, the state had made a decision to allow the project to proceed. As governor, I am responsible for assuring that the state can provide access for the TMT project as they are permitted and approved to do so.”

Still, at least one member of the audience Thursday had his doubts.

“It seems there’s a lack of will to enforce the law,” said Keith Marrack.

“It’s been relatively quiet lately, but we’ll be keeping a close eye on it,” Case replied.

Three representatives of the protesters, who call themselves “protectors” of the mountain, could not be reached for comment by press time Thursday.

A 3rd Circuit Court judge on Oct. 9 invalidated DLNR’s emergency rules limiting nighttime usage of Mauna Kea in a lawsuit filed by the Honolulu-based Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation on behalf of E. Kalani Flores. Camping in forest reserves and public hunting areas without a permit remains illegal under administrative rules.

The regulations were set to last 120 days after being signed into effect by Ige on July 14, shortly after construction of the TMT halted for the second time this year when a group of protesters who oppose the telescope project blocked Mauna Kea Access Road.

The group, composed of Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, has been on the mountain since April.