As the old saying goes, the three most important factors in real estate are location, location and location.

Oregon State University has ambitious plans to expand its marine studies campus at Newport’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, which is ideally situated for ocean research on a sandspit in Yaquina Bay.

But a proposal to build a new $50 million lab and classroom building at Hatfield have drawn fire from critics who point out the site is also in a tsunami inundation zone — the worst possible place to be in the event of a major earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, an event considered increasingly likely by geologists.

Members of the OSU Board of Trustees got a crash course in the controversy during their meeting in Corvallis on Thursday, when a four-person panel debated the pros and cons of putting the new building at the Hatfield site.

Oceanography professor Jack Barth, co-chair of OSU’s Marine Studies Initiative, pointed out that Hatfield’s location has enormous benefits for studying the ocean. Those include docks for research vessels, a sophisticated water-handling system that pumps seawater into research labs and proximity to a cluster of state and federal agencies engaged in marine work.

“It’s really about that access to the sea,” Barth said.

But geology professor Chris Goldfnger, an expert on the Cascadia Subduction Zone that runs just off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, argued that proximity to the ocean could be deadly and urged the board to consider alternate sites on higher ground.

The enormous tectonic stresses that build up in subduction zones are periodically released in earthquakes, he said, and the Oregon coast is due for one. A major quake in the region could cause liquefaction of the sandy soil at Hatfield and would likely send a 27-foot tsunami sweeping into Yaquina Bay about 30 minutes after the initial jolt.

“As scientists … we often are in the awkward position of being the bearers of bad news,” Goldfinger said. “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

Tsunami expert Dan Cox, a professor of civil and construction engineering, countered that the new building could be constructed to survive a tsunami and that existing evacuation plans could be improved to get everybody from the Hatfield Marine Science Center to the high ground of Safe Haven Hill in 20 minutes, leaving a 10-minute safety margin.

“A well-engineered system can be resilient to disaster,” he said.

And David Gomberg, a small-business owner who represents the Newport area in the state House of Representatives, expressed faith that the new building could be designed to serve its purpose without endangering the lives of students, faculty or visitors. By doing that, he argued, OSU could create a demonstration project that would serve as an example of how to build safely in tsunami zones.

“I think Oregon State in this situation has two choices,” Gomberg said. “We can lead by example, lead by education, or we can lead the retreat.”

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.


Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald