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Standing Up and Pushing Back

Jan 1, 2012

Among the technical sessions that formed part of the 141st Annual Civil Engineering Conference, which was held in Memphis, Tennessee, in October, was a one-hour seminar entitled Ethical Engineering Situations in Sustainability. Led by Steve Starrett, Ph.D., P.E., D.WRE, F.ASCE, an associate professor of civil engineering at Kansas State University, and featuring skits performed by students from the University of Memphis and the United States Military Academy at West Point, the seminar illustrated the sometimes difficult balance between an engineer's duties to a client and his or her obligation to serve the public interest and preserve natural resources. This article is based on one of those skits.


Barton Springs Pool, in Austin, Texas, is a man-made pool encompassing approximately 3 acres. Fed by underground springs and having an average year-round water temperature of 68°F, the pool has for many decades served as a popular swimming and recreational site for local residents and tourists alike. The pool and its surrounding areas are also the sole habitat of the Barton Springs salamander, a gilled salamander listed as an endangered species. As a result of the site's status as a protected habitat and as a recreational site, the City of Austin has adopted strict regulations to ensure that upstream development does not pollute the water and threaten the habitat.

In the situation portrayed during the seminar, a real estate developer has purchased a plot of land in the Barton Springs drainage basin and intends to use it to construct an apartment complex. The developer is seeking approval from the city health department to construct a septic system on the site and hires a local engineering firm to carry out percolation tests in support of the permit application. There is only a narrow window of availability in the area's construction season, and the developer is eager to obtain the permit so that ground can be broken.

An ASCE member and hydraulic engineer is assigned the task of collecting soil samples and running the percolation tests. However, of the four tests he conducts, only two samples show sufficient percolation rates, and he believes the city health department will not approve a permit based on these results. The engineer shares his results with his manager, who communicates the problem to the developer.

In response, the developer states that the septic system is essential to the project. He points out that the two unfavorable test results could be in error and suggests that the firm submit only the two results that buttress his permit application. He also emphasizes that he has long been a client of the engineering firm and that he expects the new development to generate much more work for the firm in the future.

The manager calls the engineer into her office and grills him about the test results, seeking to determine whether the unfavorable results could be faulty. The engineer states that he double-checked his results and found nothing "unusual" to suggest an error in the data. He points out that, if the soil doesn't percolate sufficiently, runoff from the drainage field could end up in Barton Springs Creek, thereby contaminating the pool and its surrounding areas. The member states that it is equally possible that the "good" results are erroneous and that the only way to be sure of the results is to conduct additional tests.

The manager insists that the firm has never missed its deadlines and that the developer is not a client she wishes to alienate. She states that the engineer needs to "make it work" with the data he has and that if a few results need to be scrapped because of possible errors, then that is what he should do.


Would the hydraulic engineer's submission of only favorable percolation test results to the city health department violate ASCE's Code of Ethics?


Canon 3 of the code is unambiguous: "Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner." Category (b) in the guidelines to practice for this canon adds the following: "Engineers shall be objective and truthful in professional reports, statements, or testimony. They shall include all relevant and pertinent information in such reports, statements, or testimony."

By omitting the fact that two of his four tests indicated insufficient percolation, the engineer would clearly be excluding information that was relevant to the health department's decision on the permit. Moreover, his choice to exclude these results would not be based on an honest and objective belief that the data were faulty; rather, it would derive from his fear of the consequences he would face if the permit were denied. In submitting an incomplete and slanted report, the ASCE member would thus be violating his obligations under canon 3.

Canon 1 also is relevant: "Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the the performance of their professional duties." If the engineer's submission of incomplete or untruthful test results would allow developed property to pollute the waters of Barton Springs, the engineer's actions might compromise public health and safety and thus would be in violation of canon 1.

Participants at the ASCE ethics seminar noted that while many clients can be demanding, the engineer had a greater obligation to ensure that the proposed development featured a sound wastewater disposal system with an acceptable effect on the environment. Many were of the opinion that the developer and the manager in this case "had crossed the line" in pushing the engineer to weed out unfavorable results and that it was unacceptable for the engineer to submit what amounted to a falsified report.

Although the question of the member's ethical obligations in this case might seem fairly straightforward, those attending the seminar noted that situations of this type can and do crop up in a member's professional life and that it might be difficult in practice to resist the pressure to exclude unfavorable data or invalidate an unfavorable result. Some attendees described situations in which they too had felt pressure from supervisors and peers to accommodate a valued client. Others noted that it can take a lifetime to build a professional reputation but only one poor choice to destroy one. One member observed that, over the course of his lengthy career in the profession, the decisions he looked back on with the greatest sense of pride were those in which he had refused to take shortcuts.

© ASCE, Civil Engineering, January, 2012


The skit featured at the seminar was prepared by Steve Starrett, Ph.D., P.E., D.WRE, F.ASCE, Carlos E. Bertha, Ph.D., James S. Talian, P.E., M.ASCE, Rebecca Waldrup, P.E., M.ASCE, Roger W, Meier, M.ASCE, Peter A. Sheydayi, P.E., D.WRE, M.ASCE, and David J. Prusak, P.E., D.WRE, M.ASCE. Special thanks are in order to Steve Starrett for his valuable suggestions for this column.

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE's hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society.