UC quake researchers refuse to share building data with L.A.

The city of Los Angeles has about 1,500 concrete buildings that would be at risk of collapse in a quake.
(John W. Adkisson / Los Angeles Times)

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

City officials said they requested the data this week from a group of researchers who identified about 1,500 potentially vulnerable concrete buildings in Los Angeles. 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 that they were willing to share the list with the city.

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

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


The researchers have long said they are reluctant to make the data public, fearing that 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,” the UC added.

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

Experts said researchers who accept public money are generally compelled to make their data public, though there are exceptions. Those exceptions include instances in which research is of a sensitive nature, such as withholding 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 National Science Foundation 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 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 that it is willing to discuss with Los Angeles officials how the building data could be used by the city. Until now, the university said, Los Angeles has not “communicated specifically how it might use the inventory.”

More than 1,000 old concrete buildings in the city may be at risk of collapsing in a major quake, according to a Times analysis. Experts say sorting out which present the greatest danger of injury and death to occupants is a daunting problem that would require building-by-building assessments by structural engineers.

Since The Times reported its findings Sunday, Garcetti and several City Council members have vowed to take action on concrete buildings and other earthquake hazards.

In interviews with The Times earlier this year, the head of the research team, UC Berkeley engineering professor Jack Moehle, expressed concern about the legal liabilities of releasing the list publicly. He added in an email: “If the city wanted the data, we probably would give it to them.… It would be their responsibility to figure out what to do with it.”

The city’s head of plan check, Colin Kumabe, called Moehle on Tuesday for the data, according to a spokesman.

“We read they would probably give it to us. So we asked. But no list,” said Luke Zamperini, spokesman for the city’s Department of Building and Safety. “He said that he never intended to give out the list.”

Moehle and his associates did not return calls and emails seeking comment.

When Moehle and his team embarked on the mission, he said that “existing vulnerable buildings are the No. 1 seismic safety problem in the world.” They hoped their research would “save thousands of lives.”

The National Science Foundation grant funded the creation of the list as well as the development of new engineering solutions to more easily identify the most at-risk buildings.

It remains unclear what legal liability the researchers would face if a property owner sued them for naming a building as potentially unsafe.

A state law protects cities and counties from liability when taking action on seismic safety.

In 1979, the city of Los Angeles created a draft list of potentially vulnerable brick buildings. The list was made public, and some property owners complained and noticed errors. But the grumbling didn’t stop the city from requiring the owners of 8,000 unreinforced brick buildings to retrofit the structures or demolish them.

Lucy Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey said she hopes that the city and researchers can come to some kind of agreement.

“We’ve got to get to a place where we’re coming together as a community and sharing our information,” she said, “because we can’t make it better if we don’t.”

Times staff writers Ari Bloomekatz and Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.