Protests concern Hawaii business leaders

  • TMT opponents link their arms in July as they block the Maunakea Access Road. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

HONOLULU — Hawaii often gets rapped as being unfriendly to business over regulations, taxes and litigation. Now a new layer to this perception may be forming as activists inhibit construction of three development projects.

“It’s a very big concern for us,” said Gino Soquena, executive director of the Hawaii Building and Construction Trades Council. “It’s sad to say, but it sends a bad message to people about doing business in Hawaii.”


Soquena, whose organization represents 15 local construction trade unions, said members had concerns that the so-far unresolved occupation of a road leading to the summit of Maunakea by opponents of the planned $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope would embolden others to disrupt upcoming controversial, though legally permitted, construction projects.

“That’s exactly what we thought, ” he said.

Since the TMT action began in July to block delivery of telescope equipment up the mountain on Hawaii Island, opponents of two Oahu projects have sprung into action to inhibit construction: a city beachfront park expansion in Waimanalo where demonstrations have grown in recent weeks, and a planned wind farm in Kahuku where community members began hampering transportation of turbine parts Sunday night and continued their vigil Tuesday.

Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, said the rule of law isn’t being respected or followed, and this can negatively affect business investments and the economy here.

“It’s important that we have certainty and stability,” she said.

State Rep. Sean Quinlan, whose district includes Kahuku, said concerns in the business community aren’t irrational because government doesn’t seem to have a solution on how to allow permitted work to proceed.

“I think the business community is right to feel a little unsettled at this time,” he said. “What does it say about the rule of law in Hawaii?”

Quinlan said he was surprised about the community response to plans to begin moving wind turbine parts Sunday night by trailer from Kalaeloa Harbor to Kahuku.

Like TMT, the Na Pua Makani wind farm project dates back more than a decade and involved lengthy regulatory procedures, a mix of public opposition and support, and legal challenges that were overcome.

But Quinlan said that if someone asked him six months ago if he thought Na Pua Makani opponents would physically impede project workers, his answer would have been no.

Quinlan, who opposes the project, said for years mostly the same 30 or 40 people turned out at opportunities to argue against the wind farm that some community members say will unacceptably kill Hawaiian hoary bats and also endanger people because of the proximity of turbines to homes, Kahuku Elementary School and farms.

On Monday night around 100 people showed up to keep the turbines away, and hundreds of other supporters are pitching in with assistance.

“It’s astonishing,” Quinlan said. “There’s a really clear playbook now. It’s a whole new world we’re living in.”

Of course, the outcome of all three construction disruption efforts is not yet known.

There have been some attempts by government officials to clear access for construction. Law enforcement officers arrested 39 people for obstructing Maunakea Access Road on July 17 and arrested 28 people in the Waimanalo protest Sept. 26.

Still, the failure so far by public servants to provide unobstructed access for construction at the three sites leaves Soquena to fear that more projects will be impeded.

Planned construction that has stirred up much community opposition includes the city’s rail line, Ala Moana Beach Park modifications, restarting a Hawaii Island geothermal power plant, more landfills on Oahu, an Ala Wai Canal flood mitigation plan, housing subdivisions and resort expansion in Makaha Valley and Turtle Bay.

Soquena is particularly concerned about a roughly $1 billion missile detection system being considered for Kaena Point with construction of the eight-story facility envisioned to start in 2021.

A recent U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Armed Services report on legislation that includes authorizing the Homeland Defense Radar-Hawaii system expressed concern about consultations between the Department of Defense and Native Hawaiians regarding military construction and land lease projects. The report asks the secretary of defense for a strategy to provide more Native Hawaiian consultations.

Opponents demonstrating against TMT, the Waimanalo park expansion and the Kahuku wind farm projects have said their concerns were ignored and that they have physically obstructed construction out of a duty to peacefully protect places or things they consider sacred.


Quinlan said he’s not sure how the impasses in Kahuku and Waimanalo and at Maunakea will be resolved, but that it should be a goal to build greater consensus on controversial projects so that perhaps civil disobedience is avoided.

“Maunakea has inspired a lot of people all over Hawaii,” he said.

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