UH drops plans for controversial lab, returns federal funding

Published On: Apr 05 2013 06:40:00 PM HST

The University of Hawaii returned $32 million to the National Institutes of Health Tuesday. It was money that was to help build a state-of- the-art biohazard laboratory in Kalaeloa.

Failure to reach a lease agreement with the military is one of the reasons for pulling the plug on the plan.

Another is the business plan that would have put the University on the hook for more than $2 million in operating costs.

With the project on hold, there is also $15 million in state funding that could be used elsewhere.

One of the projects under consideration is considered by some to be in the worst condition of any building on campus.

The sorry state of Snyder Hall isn’t something a university can be proud of.

You can see the rust and smell the mold in the leaky, creaky structure.

The laboratory sinks don't work, and some equipment is so old you can't get parts.

Looks are deceiving in one second-floor lab where all the glassware from the labs gets sterilized.

Everything from beakers to petri dishes, all get put into autoclaves.

But what's scary is what the students don’t see.

The steam vent behind the autoclaves is literally eating away at the walls of the room.

The biology labs, which are more than 50 years old, support the University's largest undergraduate program.

So if you're a student paying tuition, imagine the shock of working in these conditions.

Its overhaul is a top priority for UH Manoa.

So is the construction of a small BSL 3 laboratory-- a sophisticated, secure lab that can be tapped in the event of an infectious-disease outbreak.

"At least we have something smaller in scope and we can continue to do research in infectious diseases, and also to have the ability to respond in the case of an outbreak,” said Vasillis Syrmos, vice-chancellor for research.

Without a state of the art lab to back up another facility at the medical school.

Syrmos maintains the need to overhaul Snyder remains high.

“It's not going to go away. It’s not a questions of if, but when, the next incident is going to happen," Syrmos said.

The goal is to transform Snyder Hall into what is now taking shape in the building next door, at Edmundson Hall.

The former dean of biology, Chris Womersley gave us a tour of new labs that will be in use later this fall.

"We can switch all of these around. We have the modular design we can raise these up they are all adjustable," said Womersley, gesturing to the lab tables.

Unlike in Synder, there are emergency shutoff valves for power and gas.

They are dream labs for professors and students working under less than ideal conditions now.

It is what's possible, sooner than later, if the money gets included in the budget.

A dreary reality in Snyder now, with hopes it gets transformed soon.

”It’s worse than embarrassing,” Womerley said.

But transferring the $15 million to this project isn't so simple.

It will need approval from the UH president, the Board of Regents and state lawmakers.

All that needs to happen in the next few weeks before the end of the legislative session.

And there are competing needs from other campuses, like West Oahu, the UH Hilo Pharmacy School.

And there's the pressing backlog of repairs to the general Manoa campus, some-- which deal with health and safety.


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