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Quake danger: UC, L.A. officials in standoff over records

October 18, 2013|By Rosanna Xia, Doug Smith and Michael Finnegan
  • The dangers of brittle concrete buildings were underscored by the collapse of the Bullock's department store at Northridge Fashion Center in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The store was built in 1971, before more robust building codes were enacted. Hundreds of people could have died, but the earthquake hit at 4:31 a.m., when the store was closed.
The dangers of brittle concrete buildings were underscored by the collapse… (Steve Dykes / Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles officials and the University of California were locked in standoff Friday over whether the city would receive a list of older concrete buildings that may collapse during a major earthquake.

The list is considered a crucial first step in any effort by Mayor Eric Garcetti and other city officials to identify vulnerable concrete buildings, which experts say pose the greatest risk of deaths in a huge temblor.

IN DEPTH: The dangers of concrete buildings and earthquakes

City officials said they requested the data this week from a group of researchers who identified about 1,500 potentially at-risk concrete buildings in L.A. The academics sent a 2012 research paper outlining their studies but declined the city’s request to provide the list of buildings, said Jeff Millman, a spokesman for Garcetti. The scientists had earlier told The Times they were willing to share the list with the city.

The University of California researchers are backed by a $3.6-million grant from the National Science Foundation to study the collapse potential of older nonductile concrete buildings during earthquakes.

In a statement Friday, UC said it is willing to talk to the city about the data, but "those discussions have not yet occurred in anything other than in a very informal and preliminary manner."

The researchers have long said they are reluctant to make the data public, fearing they could be exposed to legal liability from building owners because the data are far from definitive. Each building would have to be examined more thoroughly to determine whether it needed strengthening.

UC officials said the purpose of the research was for scientific study and not “a seismic assessment of specific buildings.”

"Ultimately, the research team does plan to post confirmed and reliable publicly accessible data from the study on a public website," UC added.

The dispute raises questions about whether the data will ever be made public and how researchers should handle senstitive material with a public interest.

Experts said researchers who accept public money are generally compelled to make their data public, though there are exceptions, including when research is of a sensitive nature, such as the names of academics who tested on animals, or if the research is incomplete.

“The expectation is that all data will be made available after a reasonable length of time,” according to the National Science Foundation’s website. However, “within legal constraints, what constitutes reasonable data access will be determined by the community of interest through the process of peer review and program management.”

The NSF official overseeing the specific grant was not available this week for comment, spokeswoman Sarah Bates said.

Graham Fleming, vice chancellor for research at UC Berkeley, said that in some cases, "It could be inappropriate, and it can even be unethical" for scientists to release the underlying data used in a research project.

“There could be a significant disservice done to the public interest by releasing data that is subject to being easily misunderstood,” Fleming said. “The university is ... open to exploring responsible ways of making the specific research data that supports the science useful to the community.”

In its statement, UC added it is willing to discuss with L.A. officials how the building data could be used by the city. Until now, the university said, L.A. has not “communicated specifically how it might use the inventory.”

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