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When Engineers Conceal the Truth, It Can Endanger the Public

Feb 1, 2020


On May 31, 1889, an earth-and-stone dam on the Little Conemaugh River gave way under heavy rain, sending some 20 million tons of water down upon the nearby town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. More than 2,200 people were killed in the flood and the subsequent fire that consumed the wreckage in what to this day remains the most catastrophic dam failure in U.S. history.

The dam was constructed in the 1840s as part of a public-owned canals project, intended to allow shipment of heavy goods by water between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. When railroads gained prominence as a mode of transportation, the canal system became obsolete and the dam fell into disrepair. A partial breach of the dam in 1862 drained much of the reservoir and was not repaired. In the late 1870s, the dam was purchased from the state by a former government official who extracted five sluice pipes from the dam for scrap iron before selling the property to real estate broker and railroad contractor Benjamin Ruff.

Believing that the artificial lake and its surroundings represented an ideal location for wealthy Pittsburghers to escape the noise and pollution of the city, Ruff purchased the property under the name of his newly formed South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and immediately set about rebuilding the dam. Unfortunately, neither Ruff nor the foreman he chose to manage the project had engineering training or prior experience with dams or waterworks. As a result, Ruff's team made several decisions that would prove disastrous fewer than 10 years after his club's opening.

First, the team failed to replace the extracted sluice pipes, which limited the club's ability to manage rising water levels in the lake. Second, they installed fish screens over the spillway; the screens became clogged with debris, thus eliminating another crucial escape valve for high water. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the team lowered the top of the dam by 2 ft or more, using the material to plug leaks and widen the top so that carriages could pass; this further reduced the spillway capacity and made the dam more susceptible to overtopping.

Shortly after the disaster, ASCE's leadership appointed a team of four members to investigate the dam's failure. The team spoke with eyewitnesses, reviewed the dam's original design, and traveled to the site to inspect the remnants. While the report was completed in a matter of months, the Society's leadership sealed the content for another 18 months, citing a desire to avoid influencing any pending litigation arising from the disaster. When finally released, the report noted that Ruff's modifications "materially diminished the security of the dam," but concluded nevertheless that the changes "cannot be deemed to be the cause" of the breach, as the dam would not have withstood the heavy rains even as originally built. The team opined that the flood "occurred a little earlier in the day on account of the changes" but thought that "the result would have been equally disastrous, and possibly even more so, as the volume of water impounded was less."

In 2019, a geologist from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown publishes a manuscript making the provocative argument that the ASCE team intentionally watered down its findings about the cause of the dam's failure. The researcher alleges that the team's report failed to acknowledge the existence of an auxiliary spillway in the dam's original construction, an observation that should have been readily visible from the team's inspection of the site. He questions the team's survey data and finds that the report underestimated how much the dam was lowered. He claims the team's contention that the rate of lake inflow continued to increase until the dam failed "and no doubt longer" was inconsistent with eyewitness reports and other data available to the team.

The geologist contrasts the Johnstown report to ASCE's report on an earlier dam failure, in which the authors excoriated those involved for their poor workmanship, inadequate inspection, and above all, failure to involve experienced engineers in the project. Yet in this case, the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club included such notables as steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, banker Andrew Mellon, and railroad executive Robert Pitcairn. The researcher notes that the sitting ASCE president, who served on the investigation team and directed the sealing of the report, was a railroad engineer with connections to Pitcairn and that his successor had similar ties to club members. He concludes that the report's misleading conclusions reflected the team's willingness to protect-or perhaps unwillingness to displease- the most powerful industrialists and financiers of the era.


If the members of the 1889 flood investigation team did indeed publish misleading conclusions about the cause of the disaster, would this conduct violate the ASCE Code of Ethics?


Of course, any discussion about the ethical conduct of engineers in 1889 must begin by acknowledging that these events occurred a full quarter century before ASCE adopted its first Code of Ethics. In fact, even the 1914 Code would not be especially instructive in this case, as its canons focused primarily on business relationships among professionals rather than broad moral principles such as truthfulness and objectivity. And while it is perhaps unfair to make assumptions about individuals whose actual motives or objectives have been lost to history, it is still interesting to examine how the case mirrors similar challenges in today's profession and what guidance is offered by today's code.

Fundamental Canon 3 states, "Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner," and its guideline b adds that engineers must "include all relevant and pertinent information" in professional reports, statements, or testimony. This canon recognizes the critical nature of the knowledge or advice offered by engineers, and it is of greatest importance in the times it is hardest to follow; that is, when the information engineers must convey may be uncomfortable or unwelcome to employers, clients, or other persons of influence. As such, an engineer who distorts the contents of a professional report to appease another person would likely be in violation of Canon 3.

Next, Canon 4 requires that engineers serve employers or clients as "faithful agents or trustees" and "avoid conflicts of interest." While volunteer service to ASCE may not fi t the precise definition of an employer or client, the engineers who serve on an ASCE team or committee are providing professional service to the Society and therefore accept a similar duty of faithfulness to the Society's interests. Accordingly, an engineer who provides incomplete or untruthful information to the Society because of superseding outside interests has likely failed to meet his/ her ethical obligations under Canon 4.

Finally, the publishing of untruthful or misleading information about the cause of an engineering failure may raise questions about an engineer's Canon 1 commitment to "hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public." If the truth about such causes is concealed or obscured, there may be others harmed by a similar, and wholly avoidable, reoccurrence of those conditions.

The engineering profession has a long tradition of expanding its knowledge base through careful examination of past successes as well as failures. This case illustrates the importance of Canon 3 in preserving that tradition, ensuring that important truths about mistakes or misjudgments are made available for the education and protection of others, even if those involved in the errors may have a personal stake in denying those truths.

Tara Hoke is ASCE's general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.