Sen. Inouye Says TMT Protest ‘Destructive, Lawless’

September 5, 2019, 5:07 PM HST (Updated September 5, 2019, 6:12 PM)
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Hawai`i State Senator Lorraine Inouye. PC: Senate Communications

Events atop Mauna Kea are inspiring just as much division among Hawai‘i’s politicians as they are amongst its citizens.

On Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019, Hawai‘i Sen. Lorraine Inouye—who represents portions of North Hawai‘i, including the region encompassing the Thirty Meter Telescope protests on Mauna Kea—addressed an email to legislators on the federal, state and county levels.

It was the second such email she’s sent in recent days, although the first obtained by Big Island Now. Sen. Inouye didn’t mince words in her communication. She chastised her colleagues, characterizing the actions of the protestors “destructive” and “lawless.”

“It’s so disappointing that some of you are disregarding your sworn oaths of office, that some condone ‘civil disobedience!'” Sen. Inouye wrote. “I’m also disappointed that (the) governor hasn’t used his court-sanctioned authority to resolve this, more so now that there’s clear legal ownership of the road to the top of Maunakea.”

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“Shame on all of us for allowing this to happen,” she continued. “We are complicit if we don’t do something.”

Inouye went on to discuss the amount of money the state Legislature has doled out to manage the situation on Mauna Kea—$10 million from the general fund. In less than two months, authorities have spent more than $3.5 million already, most of that on security and enforcement.

“Are you ready to take more funds away from your constituents to help pay for this?” Inouye asked her fellow politicians. “And what if protesters show up in your community blocking a road because they don’t think they like a certain business or activity? What’s to say they won’t decide to block an airport, harbor or other economic lifeline in your community?”

She said hundreds of citizens have reached out to her with complaints about the TMT protestors. Recent polls have shown that the majority of state residents support constructing the TMT.

However, protestors have gained international recognition, as celebrities like Jason Momoa and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have visited the mountain and spoken out in solidarity with the protestors’ cause.

And while all levels of government assume an approach of negotiation, things on the mountain are getting out of hand, the senator contended.

“The situation is rapidly deteriorating,” she said. “Look at what’s being constructed? They are calling it a Learning Center? Have you ever helped a group in your community establish a learning center in your district? There are easily 30-40-50 difficult hoops to jump through to ensure the safety of everyone … but here they are building it spontaneously in the middle of nowhere on public land—possibly conservation land or a roadway easement. No plumbing or sanitation, no assurance it will not be susceptible to fire or structurally sound. Is this really acceptable?”

Not everyone took Sen. Inouye’s critical words without response.

Councilmember Valerie Poindexter. Courtesy photo

Valerie Poindexter, who represents portions of North Hawai‘i as the District 1 Representative on the Hawai‘i County Council, clapped back at the senator by insinuating hypocrisy on her part and describing some of what Inouye said about the situation on Mauna Kea as “nonsense.”

“I respect your boldness in your position as you address the issue occurring at Mauna Kea,” Councilwoman Poindexter wrote. “You publicly stated, ‘We cannot pick and choose. Laws must be followed, all laws, all the time. Public trust requires bold leadership.’ (But) where was your bold leadership when our ocean was being polluted for years and laws being broken in Hamakua. The people of that community cried out for your help when the dairy was destroying our community and (were) very disappointed that we did not have your bold leadership during that time. Where were you in upholding the law and being vocal about it then?”

Councilwoman Poindexter was referring to Big Island Dairy, located in the Kaohaoha Gulch in O‘okala. The state Department of Health eventually fined the dairy $25,000 in 2017 due to the unlawful discharge of wastewater into the ocean.

Water was contaminated with animal waste from the livestock kept at the dairy. Pollution problems concerning health and environmental consequences have continued through this year.

Sen. Inouye addressed Councilwoman Poindexter’s assertions in a lengthy email response, eventually turning the conversation back to the topic at hand.

“We need to find a way forward to embrace (and fund) the needs of our Hawaiian community—dammit—all of us—we are so far behind on responding to everything from cesspools to public education to alternative energy, to healthcare, to fixing our roadways,” Sen. Inouye said. “This activity on the mountain has put everything else on hold.”

“If you don’t think so, if you don’t think this impacts you, you’re not paying attention,” she continued. “Let us end this.”

Both Gov. David Ige and Hawai‘i County Mayor Harry Kim had previously expressed their support for TMT, though both have pulled back to a degree since protests began—willing to move into negotiations with protestors who are technically breaking the law by impeding a legal construction project.

Early in the process, Gov. Ige declared a state of emergency. Doing so allowed him the flexibility to move around money and address the situation. However, it also put the National Guard potentially in play.

The National Guard was never activated and the emergency proclamation was rescinded a short time later as Gov. Ige came under pressure from several politicians. US Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and the Hawai‘i County Council each drafted official statements to Gov. Ige to that effect.

In all, the Hawai‘i Police Department arrested 38 protestors, many of them kūpuna, on July 17, 2019. Kahookahi Kanuha, a leader of the protest, told the Hawai‘i Tribune-Herald if his people were forcibly removed again, they would only come back.

Big Island Now contributor Darde Gamayo contributed to this report.

Max Dible
Max Dible is a reporter for Big Island Now. He will also serve in a news capacity for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations. He formerly worked as a community reporter for West Hawai‘i Today in Kailua-Kona from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he was a sports editor, sports reporter and radio talk show personality with the Iowa State Daily and KURE 88.5 FM, respectively, in Ames, Iowa. He's won several regional and national journalism awards, at both the collegiate and professional levels, for breaking news, long-form feature writing and his work as a sports columnist.
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