EXCLUSIVE: UH abandons controversial plan to build expensive bio lab

Updated: Mar. 27, 2013 at 6:38 PM HST
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Tom Apple
Tom Apple

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - University of Hawaii Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple has decided to drop plans to build an expensive, controversial bio lab in Kalaeloa, a project officially known as the Pacific Health Research Laboratory.

For almost ten years, the UH has planned to build the $47.5 million lab on a parking lot in Kalaeloa that's owned by the U.S. Army.

"We have an operating deficit in our business plan that we now don't believe we can close," Apple told Hawaii News Now Wednesday morning.

Apple said the lab would have operated at a $2.2 million dollar annual deficit.

And then the Army increased the rent from next to nothing to about $220,000 a year, pushing the lab's yearly operating deficit to nearly $2.5 million.

"We had gone forward for years believing that we would have a lease for a dollar a year and it was really Washington has changed their policies, so this is from the Pentagon," Apple said.

"The only possible way would be either an infusion of state funds or, quite frankly, it would fall on the backs of our students at Manoa, and I'm not willing to do that," Apple said, adding that UH tuition funds would have been required to make up the lab's deficit.

Apple also said the Pentagon would only commit to a 5-year lease for the Kalaeloa parcel with the possibility of the Army ending the deal every five years.

"You could imagine us building a $45, $47 million building and then being booted out in five years.  So it was simply an unacceptable term," Apple said.

Some Kapolei-area residents raised safety concerns about the proposed lab during a public briefing in July 2012, because the lab would have been capable of dealing with deadly diseases like Dengue fever and tuberculosis.

"I don't believe we ever really had the majority of support in the community.  We had some community backers, but we never really won the hearts and the minds of the people," Apple said.

Over the last seven years, UH has spent about $1.7 million preparing the site for development, Apple said. The great majority of that amount came from federal funds and went to completing an environmental assessment as well as planning and design documents, Apple said.

With plans for the Kalaeloa lab now scrapped, Apple said he'd like to expand UH's existing bio lab on the UH Manoa campus at Snyder Hall.  But no money has been set aside for that.

"I still hope that at some point, we'll find a way to do this.  But it will have to be in different financial conditions, particularly in Washington," Apple said.

"We could have been clearly the best in the United States in this area of research," Apple added, noting that UH is the only state university located in a tropical climate. "I'm quite convinced that if we could have done this, we could have been the place to come for new vaccines and so on.  It really would have spurred, I think, a surge in the biotech industry here, particularly around tropical infectious diseases."

In the meantime, UH has re-opened its bio lab at the John A. Burns School of Medicine that had been closed for about six months last year because of a number of problems.

The lab shut down in June 2012 and an inspection found its ventilation system wasn't keeping air from escaping and some doors and other fixtures were not sealed properly.

The lab fixed its problems and re-opened earlier this year, Apple said.

Last fall, UH officials estimated the school lost at least $150,000 worth of research that was postponed or canceled while the med school lab was closed.

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