By Tara Hoke
Known by some as the Allegheny Reservoir and by others as Lake Perfidy, the artificial water body created in the 1960s by the construction of the Kinzua Dam provides power, recreation, and floodwater protection to surrounding areas, but it also stands as a symbol of the U.S. government’s broken promises to Native Americans and as a striking case study in engineering ethics.
Situated at the confluence of three rivers, Pittsburgh is predictably susceptible to flooding. Though numerous floods have been recorded since its precolonial origins, perhaps none was as devastating as the Great St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936, when heavy rain and snowmelt overwhelmed much of the region, leaving hundreds of thousands without homes.
In the aftermath of this disaster, Congress passes legislation to authorize funding for flood control measures in the region. While the project stagnates for some time, by the mid-1950s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is ready to move forward with a plan to locate a dam on the upper Allegheny River near the northern border of Pennsylvania.
Yet the Corps’ plan meets with immediate and intense opposition. The proposed site occupies tribal lands belonging to the Seneca people, the result of a 1794 treaty authorized by President George Washington that commits the U.S. government “never to claim the same, nor to disturb them ... in the free use and enjoyment” of their lands. This new plan, however, would force more than 130 Seneca families from their homes and flood some 10,000 acres of their ancestral land.
Hoping to block the proposed dam, the Seneca Nation files suit to enforce the 1794 treaty. Meanwhile, they reach out to an eminent dam engineer and ASCE member to review the Kinzua Dam plan and determine if the proposed approach is the best or only solution to the Allegheny flooding problem. Based on his review, the engineer proposes an alternate plan: a series of smaller dams that would direct floodwaters into Lake Erie. The engineer claims his plan would offer more hydropower potential while providing three times as much water capacity as the Kinzua plan, and above all it would leave the Seneca Nation’s land untouched.
The case draws attention from the national news media. When a consulting firm hired by the Corps to review the alternative plan declares it unfeasible on the basis of cost, the engineer appears on NBC’s Today show to dispute the findings, describing the Kinzua plan as a “colossal blunder.” He claims the Corps made no attempt to explore options for addressing the region’s floodwater needs but simply pushed forward with the most obvious solution, regardless of the harm to the local community.
He noted that, when pressed to examine other proposals, the Corps selected an “independent” firm that was founded and staffed by ex-Corps engineers and whose largest client was the Corps, which he calls “a clear case of professional conflict of interest.” Speaking directly to the consulting firm’s assessment of his plan, the engineer agrees that his plan puts more land underwater but notes it is primarily unusable swampland rather than rich agricultural land.
He also disputes the firm’s claim that his plan is more expensive; he alleges that the Corps has omitted necessary costs in detailing its own plan and states his plan is cheaper than the “true” cost of the Kinzua Dam.
Unfortunately, neither the engineer’s arguments nor those of the Seneca Nation’s attorneys are successful: The Supreme Court ultimately affirms the federal government’s authority to break, as well as make, treaties. Congress approves a mere $15 million as payment for the Seneca Nation’s land and for the expenses of rebuilding its lost communities and reinterring ancestral remains.
The Kinzua Dam becomes operational in September 1966, sinking the ruins of Pennsylvania’s last remaining Native American reservation under 100 ft of water.
For nearly 50 years, ASCE’s Code of Ethics has begun with a reminder of the engineer’s paramount ethical obligation to serve the public. In the current code, this is embodied in section 1a’s statement that engineers must “first and foremost, protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.”
While the role of engineers in protecting public health and safety is perhaps a more common area of focus in ethics discussions, it is important not to dismiss the importance of engineers in advancing public welfare as well — a concern that encompasses far more than simply protection against threats to physical well-being. An ill-considered engineering work can impose an unnecessary economic burden on members of an impacted community; deprive members of easy access to green spaces, shared communal areas, and other benefits; or impose a host of other personal, communal, or societal harms.
As an elaboration of this role in protecting the public welfare, section 1g of today’s code states that engineers “acknowledge the diverse historical, social, and cultural needs of the community, and incorporate these considerations in their work,” while section 2 includes language reminding engineers to “consider and balance societal, environmental, and economic impacts” of their work, mitigate adverse impacts, and explore opportunities for improvement where possible.
In view of these instructions, if the engineers responsible for the Kinzua Dam project did indeed move forward without considering ways to mitigate the grave cost to the Seneca people, then it is likely that by today’s standards they would fall short of their obligations under sections 1 and 2 of the code.
Another potential ethical question relates to the consulting engineering firm tasked with making an independent assessment of the proposals. Section 1c of the code requires engineers to “express professional opinions truthfully and only when founded on adequate knowledge and honest conviction.” If the consultants’ review of the competing plans was conducted in bad faith or with the desire to gain the favor of their colleagues and biggest client, then under the current code they would likely be deemed to have violated their ethical obligation to be objective and truthful in stating professional opinions.
Of course, this case was reviewed in the 1960s, more than a decade before ASCE amended its code to address the public interest and a full half century before it included social or cultural considerations. As this column has frequently noted, earlier versions of the code differed greatly in focus from today’s code, as the former served mainly as a guide for professional courtesy among engineers.
Given this self-protective purpose, it should not be unexpected that the issue that brought this case to consideration by ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct was the engineer’s conduct during his television interview during which he questioned the Corps’ diligence and the consulting firm’s objectivity in reviewing alternatives to the Kinzua plan.
Article 2 of the 1960s code instructed that an engineer may not “attempt to injure falsely or maliciously, directly or indirectly, the professional reputation, prospects, or business of another engineer.” Though this ethical principle survives with only slight alterations even in the current code, it seems that the earlier ASCE leadership was more willing to use this as a hammer against all criticism, regardless of motive. In the subject case, though nothing in the CPC’s files suggests an attempt to explore the validity of the engineer’s statements, the CPC nevertheless found that his critique of other engineers violated Article 2 of the code and sent him a formal letter of admonishment.
While today’s reader may find the engineer’s actions in this case to be more worthy of ethical approval than censure, it must be acknowledged that unfortunately a deeper dive into this member’s career does not sustain an image of him as a champion for marginalized populations.
Historical records indicate he expressed support for the eugenics movement in earlier academic writings and that his term of leadership in a state public agency was characterized by discriminatory practices in both hiring and provision of services. The purpose of this column is not to hold up this engineer as a model for ethical behavior, but rather to use this case as an illustration of the impacts of engineering decisions on the public welfare.
While few engineering decisions will involve such profound consequences as the Kinzua Dam project, engineers must always remember to be mindful of the third piece of the “health, safety, and welfare of the public” maxim. Even the most elegant engineering solution falls short of ethical expectations if it fails to account for impacts on the welfare of all affected communities.
Tara Hoke is ASCE's general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.
This article first appeared in the November/December 2023 print issue of Civil Engineering as “A Case Study in Shifting Standards.”