Plan for new OSU facility in tsunami zone being questioned by lo - KPTV - FOX 12

Plan for new OSU facility in tsunami zone being questioned by local leaders, professors

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A plan by Oregon State University administrators to build a new facility in a tsunami zone has critics, including local leaders, geologists and OSU professors, questioning the proposal. (KPTV) A plan by Oregon State University administrators to build a new facility in a tsunami zone has critics, including local leaders, geologists and OSU professors, questioning the proposal. (KPTV)
NEWPORT, OR (KPTV) -

FOX 12 has uncovered Oregon State University plans to build a new marine science facility on the coast, in the center of a tsunami zone.

It is a controversial decision administrators made with the use of state funding, and a decision that went against the advice of local leaders, geologists and OSU professors.

University president Ed Ray believes the new facility can be built to sustain a 9.0 earthquake and the tsunami that follows. He hopes to become an example to the world in doing so.

There's a growing number of people who think the university is crossing a line they should not cross, though.

No one will soon forget the devastating images from Japan in 2011, moments after one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded in the country's history brought down cities in seconds. The massive 40-foot tsunami that arose in its shadow demolished what was left.

"In my mind, we need to really approach this as the worst case could happen," Chairman of Oregon's Seismic and Safety Commission Jay Wilson said.

State leaders say they are trying to learn from what happened to Japan so they can prepare and protect Oregon's coastline for when the big one hits here.

Part of that is encouraging coastal developers to build outside of a newly identified tsunami inundation zone, which is why Wilson tells FOX 12 he was dumbfounded by what Oregon State University is trying to do.

 "We have a standard grant program in the state where any given school has to go through all of these hoops to get a million dollars and they're excluded from doing anything in a tsunami zone," Wilson said. "And, here the legislature gave $25 million in bonds to put a school in a tsunami zone without there even being a plan in place."

Ray wants to construct a new Marine Studies Initiative building at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, in part with state funding.

So, Wilson wrote a letter to Governor Kate Brown questioning the OSU project, and once Oregon State University geologists and geophysics professors got wind of what was going on, they too tried to get administrators to think twice.

"Frankly there's nobody in the world, not at OSU or anyone, who has experience of building a school in a tsunami zone. It's simply not done," OSU marine geologist Chris Goldfinger said. "The idea that they're going to show the world and showcase how it's done, I think is foolish."

Goldfinger was one of 23 professors who wrote and signed a letter to President Ray.

The group wrote, in part, that building in the Tsunami Inundation Zone would "threaten lives, damage buildings, and hobble the research capacity of this flagship institute." They pleaded with Ray to build elsewhere, to avoid putting lives at risk.

"The decision to build in the tsunami zone is not a scientific call at all. It's a decision made by administrators that have other priorities than safety, frankly," Goldfinger said.

That caused university administrators to take pause. OSU told FOX 12 that for months they explored the possibility of moving the project to two other sites in Newport.

Ultimately, they made the call in August to stick with their original location but now plan to build student housing on higher ground.

"I think with anything we do, whether that's driving to the coast or going surfing, you have to be prudent and know the risks, but also the benefits," MSI Executive Director Jack Barth said. "I think we're not going into this without eyes closed. We're going in knowing what the risks are, but we're choosing to base here for the benefits."

Those benefits, Barth said, include being close to the water.

Students currently have running sea water pumped into their classrooms at Hatfield, something that's important for their research. The university wants to do that at the MSI building, too, and leaders say it makes sense to keep the entire campus together.

"The synergism that occurs and the collaborations that occur by being close together and passing each other in the hallways and having that direct connection is key to some of our success here," Hatfield Marine Science Center Director Bob Cowen said.

Beyond that, administrators believe engineers will be able to construct the MSI building to withstand a 9.0 earthquake and the tsunami that would ensue. In doing so, they believe the building will provide a safe place for people to evacuate to in the event of a major earthquake.

"We can build a building that not only can survive these events and provide safety for people, but we can ensure that people get out of the building and there's a potential for adding in a vertical evacuation location for them," Cowen said.

But Wilson said he's not convinced they can.

"There's a lot of overconfidence, I think, in technologically, what we can do and what we can deliver,” he said. “What isn't being explained here is there's a lot of uncertainty of how this is going to happen."

Goldfinger also admits while they know a lot about the Cascadia Subduction Zone and what will happen in the event of a major earthquake, there is still a lot of uncertainty about the force of the tsunami should it arrive in our lifetime.

He calls it a wild card and believes, in this case, the university is gambling with student lives.

"The unsinkable Titanic was engineered to be unsinkable, and that's what everyone was told, and they hit the first iceberg and that claim lasted 30 seconds," Goldfinger said. "I won't work in that building, and I certainly wouldn't want to be there when the tsunami comes."

FOX 12 reached out to the governor's office for comment multiple times about the state's decision to fund the OSU project, but at the time this story aired we have not heard back from them.

Copyright 2016 KPTV-KPDX Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

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