Chemistry department cancels labs amid safety concerns


Michael Hill, chemistry department chair and professor; Eileen Spain, associate dean of the college; and Wendy Sternberg, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college, announced the cancellation of all research and labs in the Norris Hall of Chemistry via an email to the student body Nov. 30 after Hill made the decision to cancel the labs Nov. 9.

Hill said the expulsion of unidentifiable black matter from the ventilation system was the most recent development among myriad building safety concerns that led to his decision. According to Hill, Amos Himmelstein, vice president and chief operating officer, and Thomas Polansky, director of facilities, these concerns — including numerous plumbing, electrical and gas breakdowns and hazardous chemical and flammable material storage risks — followed years of deferred maintenance in the 57 year-old building.

“Episodic belchings of soot”

“A couple of weeks ago, we started getting these episodic belchings of soot that were coming out of the vent system. We don’t know what that material is, we don’t know where it’s coming from,” Hill said. “It may be dirt, we literally have no idea what it is at this point. But we just absolutely did not feel that it was appropriate to expose people to a known contaminant.”

According to Himmelstein, although the origin of the black matter remains unknown, Citadel Environmental Services Inc., an outside consulting company, determined that the air inside Norris Hall of Chemistry is safe.

Prior to releasing a statement to the student body, Hill and Sternberg sent a statement to the college faculty announcing the lab closures Nov. 15. According to Hill, this statement followed Hill’s meeting with chemistry faculty, President Jonathan Veitch, Himmelstein and Polansky Nov. 13.

According to Himmelstein, a 2014 campus infrastructure report stated that all systems in Norris Hall of Chemistry had surpassed their life spans. The report identified the most pressing concern to be the building’s outdated and out-of-code HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system. According to Hill, at the time, the system did not expel circulated air out of the building with enough velocity to ensure that potentially contaminated air did not return to the vents.

An exterior look at the ventilation system outside Norris Hall at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Friday Nov. 17, 2017. Spencer Patrick/Occidental Weekly

In response to the report, the school invested $6 million in a renovation of the Norris Hall of Chemistry ventilation system in 2016, according to Himmelstein. Polansky said that the renovated HVAC system circulates 100 percent outside air throughout the day, passing the air through the ducts to all rooms in Norris Hall before exiting via the four new exhaust stacks on the top of the building.

According to Hill, this new ventilation system ensures that 70,000 cubic feet of air per minute passes through the building — the amount the current safety code requires. The renovation did not replace the original air supply vents, which were only designed to pass 30,000 cubic feet per minute through the ducts. Hill cites this discrepancy as a potential although unconfirmed cause of the recent ventilation issues.

A history of concerns, hazards and deferred maintenance

According to Hill, the Norris Hall of Chemistry has long suffered from power outages, plumbing malfunctions and poor air flow leading to pervasive foul smells.

Hill said that the flammable storage cabinets, as well as the department’s protocols and procedures, have remained static even as safety requirements have evolved. As a result, many elements of the laboratories are now out of code.

According to Hill, the college met with an architect and formulated a plan for a full-scale remodel and addition around six or seven years ago, seeking to remedy the building’s long-standing issues. The plan required a $35–40 million fundraising campaign that never came to fruition.

“Upgrading our systems has been a major priority, upgrading our policies has been a major priority, dealing with some of these storage issues that we know are a problem has been a major priority,” Hill said. “And so, as we’re trying to manage all of these challenges, having one more thing added on to it, that just put us over the top.”

Renovation difficulties 

According to Hill, renovation schemes have presented complications specific to the nature of the building and the chemistry department.

“[Chemistry]’s an inherently dangerous field and there’s no way to make it quote unquote safe,” Hill said. “Our job contractually, if not legally and certainly morally, is to mitigate as much of that inherent risk as possible.”

Hill said that the administration has always been responsive to concerns of immediate safety, but that he would rather address the state of the entire building rather than specific problems within it.

“It’s a categorical mistake to ask that question, is it safe? And I think that’s probably how we got to this point,” Hill said. “The administration will think, ‘Is the building safe or not?’ That’s a separate question from, ‘Are the facilities modern, up to date or not?'”

Financial restrictions

Hill said that budgetary restrictions hinder the extent to which the college can renovate the building.

“We don’t have $40 million to raze this building and build a new one. That’s what needs to happen, that’s the right solution. That’s not in the cards,” Hill said. “But we are going to go meet with an architect [to see] in this footprint, what can we do over a relatively short period of time in order to update these facilities.”

Himmelstein, like Hill, said that the astronomical expense of building an entirely new facility limits the college to renovating the building within its current footprint. Himmelstein estimated that a new building would require a minimum of $50 million and likely upwards of $180 million.

According to Himmelstein, these types of projects often require a donation that is specifically targeted for a particular expense. As a result, the long-awaited pool renovation had to wait for alumni donations specific to building a new pool.

“I don’t think in the near future we would take the building down. I think it really is going to be a lab by lab renovation. That’s my real take,” Himmelstein said. “Now what happens 10 years from now, I couldn’t tell you.”

The future of Norris Hall of Chemistry

The administration will be inspecting the building’s plumbing, electrical systems, storage and surface materials in the upcoming weeks, according to the statement. Himmelstein said that the college will also hire a new chemical hygienist responsible for the institution of new procedures, protocols and policies meant to enhance safety in the laboratories. If any of the issues remain unresolved in Spring 2018, the college will provide access to temporary, portable teaching and research facilities.

Himmelstein said the immediate short-term solution includes the replacement of defective faucets, the installation of new storage cabinets, the deep cleaning of all labs and the hiring of the chemistry hygienist.

An untended help desk in Norris Hall at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Friday Nov. 17, 2017. Spencer Patrick/Occidental Weekly

“I’m not worried about us being able to cover [the short term] with existing operating money,” Himmelstein said.

According to Polansky, this operational money will likely come from the Major Repair and Renewal (MR&R) fund.

Himmelstein said that, over the long term, the administration hopes to begin lab-by-lab renovations, replacing countertops and cabinetry and bringing the labs up to modern standards. According to Himmelstein, the school renovated Professor Raul Navarro’s lab upon his hiring last year and will renovate the lab of an incoming faculty hire this summer. The process of renovating all labs will take five to six years. Himmelstein said that even renovating the chemistry labs will cost tens of millions of dollars.

Polansky said that the school has been in contact with c|a ARCHITECTS, a firm that specializes in academic and healthcare laboratory design and construction, about formulating a long-term plan for the building. Hill also confirmed that the college will be meeting with an architect and a space planner Dec. 8.

“We want to make sure we have a plan for the entire building before we get started on lab-by-lab renovations so that we’re not having to repeat or pull out any work that they finished or just completed,” Polansky said. “You always want to start with the big plan in mind before you start individual remodels.”

Hill is concerned that short-term renovations will not solve the greater infrastructure issues of Norris.

“We can put on new tires, we can paint it, put on new upholstery, fix the radiator, redo the transmission and we’re still driving a 1972 Ford Pinto,” Hill said. “If we get rear ended, it blows up. It’s the design. It’s built into the DNA of the building, and that’s what we really want to address.”

Students respond to the cancellation

Audrey Shawley (senior), Danica Gressel (senior) and Ayanna Lynch (sophomore) hosted a meeting for students affected by the lab cancellations in the Johnson Atrium Nov. 29. Hill, Sternberg and Himmelstein, among other faculty and administrators, attended the event. According to Shawley, the organizers hoped that the town hall would enable discussion in a non-confrontational way.

“It was supposed to be a discussion, and the first and only opportunity so far for students to voice their concerns,” Shawley said.

Shawley, along with Katherine Carter (senior), coauthored a student survey for anyone affected by the cancellations which reached more than 140 respondents. The results found that these students had an overwhelmingly critical view of the state of the chemistry facilities. In response to a survey question asking whether they enjoyed their time in the building, 63 percent said either a little or not at all, while 36 percent said that the quality of the chemistry building dissuades students from pursuing a chemistry major or minor. Students expressed their frustration with the school’s lack of communication and urgency regarding the issue through anonymous comments in the survey.

“The main point I got after reading the results was that students were very unclear about what was happening,” Shawley said.

Shawley said that she hopes the issue remains at the forefront of administrative priorities.

“I want them to continue to send out statements about progress, about plans,” Shawley said, “I want them to put the chemistry building on the same public platform as other issues.”

Shawley also said the lack of investment in the chemistry department is disconcerting.

“I think that especially with recent Oxy investments that are within their control but have gone elsewhere — that really reenergizes the conversation about [renovations] because they can’t just justify that there is no money,” Shawley said. “There is, it’s just going elsewhere.”

Ninety-nine students mentioned air quality and 91 students mentioned asbestos as particular points of concern in the survey. Hill said the school has eliminated any instances of airborne asbestos, though non-harmful residues still exist within countertops and insulation.

Academic impact

In the student survey, students cited lost learning time and preparedness for graduate school as their two main academic concerns related to the cancellation. Hill said that the success of Oxy chemistry graduates — 100 percent acceptance into graduate school and 90 percent acceptance into medical school — is evidence that the outdated facilities have not prevented students from reaching their potential.

Kazim Apaydin (senior) said that the cancellation of the labs halted his research, impacting his post-graduate plans.

“Yeah, I was doing research. All of us were really doing research, I mean that’s important for grad school and I plan to go to med school, but when research gets canceled you can’t really keep saying that you were doing research,” Apaydin said.

According to Anna Stokolosa (senior), her income as a teaching assistant (TA) relies upon the existence of the chemistry labs.

“Next semester, I have expressly quit one of my jobs in order to be a TA,” Stokolosa said. “It’s a third of my income.”

Stokolosa said she is unsure whether the administration will follow through on its promises.

“In the meeting they told us the labs would be ready in the spring,” Stokolosa said. “But hopefully, no guarantees.” 

Reflections on the state of chemistry at Occidental

Hill said that the focus on the recent problems threatens to obscure the important steps that lie ahead.

“We don’t want to take our eye off the ball, which is [that] the building is in dire need of modernization,” Hill said. “And it’s just simply not possible to run a program without modern facilities.”

According to Hill, the Norris Hall of Chemistry has no natural gas and no hot water. Polansky said that facilities is working to address this. Hill said that these restrictions, among the other concerns, severely limit Occidental chemists’ capabilities.

“The real problem, in my mind, isn’t that we lost the last two weeks of general chemistry,” Hill said. “It’s that the first twelve weeks of general chemistry, we weren’t able to do the kinds of experiments that we should be doing.”

Hill quoted E.J. Corey, a renowned organic chemist from Harvard University.

“The most beautiful work comes out of the most ugly places,” Hill said. “That was sort of his [Corey’s] saying, and we’ve kind of adopted that ourselves. And we’ve taken a lot of pride that we’re still able to publish important journal articles, and we’re able to have a program that’s really a notable program in undergraduate research articles.”

Hill said that the chemistry department has done outstanding work within its current confines, but that the moment for change has arrived.

“But at some point,” Hill said. “You can’t compete in the Indianapolis 500 on a 10-speed bike.”

Gabriel Dunatov and Christopher Peel contributed to the reporting of this article.