Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Should a university that doesn’t understand security be allowed to build a dangerous biolab anywhere on Oahu?

by Larry Geller

Biosafety lab headline

It’s not at all strange that there are protests around the new proposed location of the UH bio lab at Kalaeloa.

The University of Hawaii is not known for safety or security. I’ll recap some examples below that support community concerns for the ability of UH to maintain the security that is needed to protect the citizens of Hawaii from the deadly microbes that would be in a biolab. The Star-Advertiser article mentions tuberculosis bacteria, viruses that cause West Nile infections and severe acute respiratory syndrome, and SARS.

Equally important, UH doesn’t know where to locate potentially hazardous laboratories. The first choice for the Orwellian-named biosafety lab was Kakaako. Let’s look first at some concerns related to UH’s ability to design a laboratory and keep it safe. At the end of the article I’ll recap the issues around UH’s first proposal to put the biolab amid condos in Kakaako.

UH has given me reason to be highly skeptical over the years of its ability to even understand, much less maintain, security—or public safety. Now, none of the anecdotes to follow relates to a biosafety lab, but on the other hand, perhaps they do relate to the chances that UH will be able to provide the security it assures us will protect residents around the laboratory and elsewhere in the state.

You be the judge on whether UH understands and can carry out adequate security for a laboratory with these high risks to the community.

Your honors, here are some exhibits.

First, some design issues. Remember, the laboratory has to be designed….by the same folks who brought us the ugly Architecture Building, perhaps (?), but nevermind. More relevant were the unusable laboratories in the new UH science building:

Exhibit A—design/oversight issue:

Three years after its dedication, a highly touted University of Hawaii science building still has three unfinished floors, one that's empty and one with unusable laboratories.

The Pacific Ocean Science and Technology Center has been plagued with problems since construction began in 1993 -- five years after the original completion date.

"I've grown old waiting for this building to be occupied," sighed C. Barry Raleigh, dean of SOEST, the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

[Star-Bulletin, POST: The hollow halls of knowledge, 9/7/2000]

Exhibit B—unclear on the concept of building a laboratory (related to the above story):

Despite improvements totaling about $431,500, a new isotope laboratory in the University of Hawaii's Pacific Ocean Science and Technology Center remains vacant.

The sixth floor lab "supposedly was finished" three years ago, said John Mahoney, geology and geophysics professor and researcher.

"It was not what we asked for -- not even close," he said.

It didn't meet "clean room" standards, requiring positive pressure and highly filtered air to keep out dust and other inorganic contaminants, Mahoney said.

[Star-Bulletin, UH lab blunders may threaten future grants, 9/7/2000]

There appears to have been finger-pointing, but the article notes, for example:

The consultant designed for standard pressure and the researchers agreed to it, although it's lower than desired.

"If they'd only asked us about this in 1992 or 1993, we could have solved the problem," Mahoney said. "There was a lack of any communication with the scientists after telling us initially they would work with us.

I think this is relevant to the current controversy over the biolab.

Not so much this next one, but is there a pattern here?

Exhibit C—University of Hawaii softball field that can't be seen from the bleachers

State and University of Hawaii officials want the stands lowered at the new $1.2 million softball stadium, so fans can see the entire playing field.

[Star-Bulletin, UH stadium’s design also may block speedy solution, 3/20/1998]

Well, yeah. Great project oversight on that one.

Enough for the moment on UH’s ability to design and build labs and things. Let’s move on to security concerns.

Exhibit D—UH inability to provide physical security

University of Hawaii interim President David McClain is pledging to increase security systemwide over the next two years to make the institution's 10 campuses "rape-free zones."

The plan came after months of talks with the Rape Free Zone Coalition, which organized a series of rallies and protests in April after three unrelated rapes near the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus.

Kathryn Xian, spokeswoman for the Rape Free Coalition, said the university's pledge is well received. But, she added, there are still concerns over whether the university is doing enough and doubts that UH officials are committed to the cause in the long term.

[Star-Bulletin, UH vows to create rape-free campuses, 8/27/2005]

I wonder what Kathy would say today about UH’s progress. I have my own anecdote on this subject. The picture below is of an emergency security phone in the parking lot of Kapiolani Community College. This photo was taken on 6/12/2012, but you’ve seen similar in several earlier articles, for example here and here.

Exhibit E—security hazard—non-existent emergency telephone


I wrote in 2010:

It’s an emergency callbox at Kapiolani Community College. There has been no phone in it for between one and two years at least (that’s when I first noticed it).

Imagine it’s late at night. A young female student parts from her friends and heads towards her car. She notices shadowy figures following her. So instead of going to the car, she heads instead for the emergency call box. That’s what it’s there for, right? To get help when you’re in trouble.

She breaks into a run and a cold sweat. They’re gaining on her.

Reaching the call box, she goes to… pick… up… the… er,… phone…

That’s what could happen as a result of this bit of neglect, this emergency phone that never gets fixed

Security knows about this. Occasionally they come by the KCC Farmers Market in a little golf cart, and I’ve pointed it out.

Let me emphasize that if there were no callbox sign there, no one would run toward it only to discover that there’s no phone there. But KCC, part of the UH system, has left that sign showing the whole time. It could cost someone her life.

Exhibit F—UH’s chronic inability to protect student property

University of Hawaii at Manoa students are fuming mad, they say robbers are reaping the benefits of what they say is inadequate campus security.

Property theft has spiked and because there's no insurance on things like mopeds, that has many students out thousands if they're stolen. They're also losing cars, bikes, basically anything thieves can get their hands on. Students say they're fed up!

[HawaiiNewsNow (KHNL), UH students call campus security inadequate, 19/13/2008]

It was pretty well known that most thefts occurred outside of the Campus Center or Moor/St. Johns buildings, yet security personnel were not dispatched to these hotspots, nor were CCTV cameras or other protective measures taken.

Any student or faculty member who was preparing for finals, say, only to discover the day before that their transportation had been stolen, might have a few words about whether UH understands security.

Exhibit G—repeated serious data breaches

The University of Hawaii has had massive data breaches, and had to be sued to provide protection for those affected by the latest breach—they wouldn’t provide assistance on their own despite the potential damage they could have caused.

I wrote extensively on the basic failures to even understand the principles behind data security here and here.

The University of Hawaii's personal information breach of more than 40,000 students is the third-largest privacy breach detected by a Washington, D.C.-based privacy policy institution.

As a press release from from the National ID Website notes, the University of Hawaii has a history of security breaches:

HONOLULU, Hawaii. The University of Hawaii-Manoa and has breached the personal information of 40,101 students who attended between 1990-1998 and 2001, including names, social security numbers, dates of birth, addresses, demographic, and detailed academic performance data. These UH-Manoa students are at increased risk of identity theft and fraud. The information was posted on an insecure, unencrypted University of Hawaii-West Oahu (UHWO) website for almost a year. Some of the affected alumni attended UHWO. Alumni attending other years and on other campuses may have also been affected by the breach. This latest breach follows on the heels of a May, 2010 breach involving 53,000 students, and a 2009 breach involving 15,487 parents and students. …

Attorney Tom Grande sued UH to get credit protection services for those affected:

“The settlement is historic for several reasons,” said Thomas Grande. “First, this is the largest class case filed or settled in Hawai'i. It also is the first data breach settlement in Hawai'i…”

(see stories on the data breach, lawsuit and settlement here)

Let me reiterate this last point: UH neglect to provide basic data security resulted in the largest class action case and settlement in Hawaii.

To sum up, your honors, the University of Hawaii has demonstrated not only problems in designing a laboratory and other facilities over the years, it has shown a profound indifference to security in its various manifestations. It arguably has shown an indifference to community concerns with its initial proposal to locate the biolab near condos and other facilities in a downtown area potentially subject to storms and tsunamis, or to protect personal property stored on campus. It seems to care little about data security.

Should a laboratory be built by these folks at Kalaeloa? You be the judge.

Here is some background on UH's first attempt to locate a biolab in Kakaako.

An editorial headline in the 6/28/2008 Honolulu Advertiser pitched the Kakaako location: Kaka'ako biosafety lab has some key benefits. Construction was to start in October, 2009.

At the time, Disappeared News and then state senator Gordon Trimble were among the first to sound the alarm. The Kakaako peninsula is quite flat, except for a big hill in the park near the waterfront. Should a tsunami hit the southern shore of Oahu, it wasn’t clear if the “biosafety” lab would be safe.

I’ll admit to having visions of test tubes of anthrax washing up on San Souci beach the morning after a big wave hits. Or of damage to the building in a storm, resulting in very evil stuff blowing out broken windows. I wrote:

Yes, these labs are called biosafety labs. This lab has also been described at a neighborhood board meeting as “a Level 3 Regional BioSafety Laboratory. Level 3 laboratories are used to study agents that may potentially cause lethal infection, but which may be transmitted through the air.” I just want everyone to know what the term “biosafety” implies in terms of, um, safety. Does this sound like anything you might choose to locate near condos and a recreation area?

[Location, location, location: Three reasons why today’s Advertiser editorial made me laugh, 6/28/2008]

Why was I laughing? It was the convoluted logic in the Advertiser editorial. For example, this:

Above all, given Hawai'i's geographic isolation and proximity to Asia, the lab would better position us to diagnose and withstand an epidemic.

I wrote then: So we’re isolated and proximate. Good trick. Far but near. Hazardous but safe. You just have to believe.

The editorial went on:

Still, it's crucial that the concerns of residents and community leaders are addressed. While it's true that the new lab would be near a rapidly growing urban area of homes and businesses, there's no reason it could not be a suitable neighbor.

I wrote: Funny!! “it’s crucial that the concerns of residents and community leaders are addressed??” The editorial advocates ignoring those concerns. Watch the logic twist and dance.

Similar labs are in far more densely populated areas, including Washington, D.C., downtown Atlanta and Boston.

The facility must meet stringent federal and state safety standards.

Me: Now, we all know how stringent federal safety standards have become. One could worry especially if they allow similar labs in densely populated areas of Washington, Atlanta and Boston. Do they also have standards for locating labs in an area that could be subject in the future to tsunamis? Imagine those little pathogens swimming freely in the surf around Honolulu.

For the project to thrive — as it should — an unwavering commitment to take no shortcuts and put public safety first is needed from the get-go.

Me again: This is the punch line. If public safety is first, then the lab should be located elsewhere, and we should take no shortcuts, like putting it next to the medical school in Kakaako. Will public safety suffer if a lab is located in a safer location, one away from dense housing and proximity to the water?

Subsequently, the University of Hawaii released tsunami inundation and evacuation maps for Oahu. Strangely, and perhaps suspiciously, the rectangular area in Kakaako occupied by the UH facility was placed outside the zone (click for larger):

Evacuation map[2]

There’s no reason to question the map—except that it was created by UH and basically excludes UH from concern both for tsunamis and for the effects of seawater and water table rise due to global warming.


Should a university that can't arrange a Stevie Wonder concert be allowed to handle anything more dangerous than a donut?

My thoughts exactly, Anonymous, when I saw this morning's paper. See also this article on Ian Lind's blog.

Post a Comment

Requiring those Captcha codes at least temporarily, in the hopes that it quells the flood of comment spam I've been receiving.

<< Home


page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Newer›  ‹Older