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Seismic Experts Caught Between Privacy, Safety


The whole point of the conference was to share information about the Loma Prieta earthquake. But when someone asked for details about the widely suspected structural damage within the host hotel, the subject was taboo.

"I had to say I couldn't talk about it," said Sigmund Freeman, a consulting engineer who became intimately familiar with the failures and repairs at the Hyatt Regency in Burlingame--and who was barred from discussing them under terms of a legal settlement.

"Here we were in that very building and nobody knew what had really happened there."

It was a frustrating quandary for Freeman and one often faced by engineers who know more about a building's problems than the owners or their lawyers want them to say.

A classic conflict between privacy and the public's right to know, the problem surfaces every day in routine construction disputes and real estate deals. Consulting engineers are often required to keep their findings confidential to avoid exposing their clients to lawsuits, bad publicity, loss of rental income or pressure to make expensive repairs.

But the perennial issue assumes new urgency after a major earthquake, when suppressed information can stymie the scientific inquiries that lead to improved seismic safety codes.

"The earthquake-damaged building is really the best lab we have," said Tom Tobin, executive director of the California Seismic Safety Commission. "If the information is not brought forth, the rest of the community can't learn from it and public policy can't be advanced."

Since the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake, researchers have raced to document its effects before damaged buildings are demolished or repaired.

Despite the time pressure, gaining access to privately owned shopping centers, offices and industrial plants has often been a matter of diplomacy dependent on the hospitality of landlords. In exchange for entry, some researchers said, they have had to promise never to reveal the building's owner or location.

So far, they added, landlords have usually cooperated but are becoming increasingly skittish as time passes and they consult lawyers.

"It is difficult to get the information," said Helmut Krawinkler, a Stanford University engineering professor who is co-authoring a report on the Northridge temblor for the Oakland-based Earthquake Engineering Research Institute.

"It doesn't work to tell people you're working for the public interest," Krawinkler said. "You have to know somebody."

The pattern of damage within modern steel-frame buildings was one of the most significant discoveries of the Northridge quake because experts have always considered steel relatively invulnerable to quakes.

But engineers say the findings took weeks to emerge, partly because building owners were afraid of alarming their tenants and because the cracked girders could not be readily detected. More than 20 buildings with the problem have been identified so far.

Pinpointing the buildings also has been difficult because of the secrecy surrounding the problem. A Westside building was reported to have steel supporting columns cracked all the way through, and photos of the damage were widely circulated among private engineers and researchers. But the identity of the 10-story structure has remained secret.

Recognizing the need for some organized way to obtain such information, Tobin of the Seismic Safety Commission has considered proposing legislation that would require engineering studies on buildings to be filed at City Hall, where they would become a matter of public record.

But the idea is rife with legal concerns for the property rights and privacy of owners, Tobin said. And on a practical level, he added, the specter of publicity might prevent landlords from undertaking any seismic safety surveys at all.

The debate over disclosure of "bad seismic news," as Tobin calls it, was the subject of a 1992 commission report that said, "The public has a fundamental right to be warned of known seismic hazards."

But the report also concluded that it would be unfair to force landlords to reveal their buildings' flaws--possibly generating unrest among employees, business tenants and residents--without first resolving which buildings ought to be seismically upgraded.

"We have not been able to figure out a good solution that respects everybody's rights," Tobin said in an interview.

Disclosure is such a nettlesome issue that it took the Structural Engineers' Assn. of California five years to come up with a tepid guideline: "The engineer's duty to disclose is an unsettled area of law."

The guideline also cites a 1985 opinion by the state attorney general stating that an engineer has a professional duty to warn of "imminent risk of serious injury."

But Peter Curry, the San Diego engineer who heads the group's Professional Practices Committee, said assessing building safety is an inexact science, and opinions of engineers can vary greatly.

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