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The Aberdeen Three

The Aberdeen Three is one of the classic cases often used in engineering ethics classes and texts to illustrate the importance of environmental protection and the safety of workers exposed to hazardous and toxic chemicals. The Aberdeen Proving Ground is a U.S. Army weapons development and test center located on a military base in Maryland with no access by civilian nonemployees. Since World War II, Aberdeen has been used to develop and test chemical weapons. Aberdeen has also been used for the storage and disposal of some of these chemicals. This case involves three civilian managers at the Pilot Plant at the Proving Grounds: Carl Gepp, manager of the Pilot Plant; William Dee, who headed the chemical weapons development team; and Robert Lentz, who was in charge of developing manufacturing processes for the chemical weapons [ Weisskopf, 1989 ]. Between 1983 and 1986, inspections at the Pilot Plant indicated that there were serious safety hazards. These hazards included carcinogenic and flammable substances left in open containers, chemicals that can become lethal when mixed together being stored in the same room, barrels of toxic chemicals that were leaking, and unlabeled containers of chemicals. There was also an external tank used to store sulfuric acid that had leaked 200 gallons of acid into a local river. This incident triggered state and federal safety investigations that revealed inadequate chemical retaining dikes and a system for containing and treating chemical hazards that was corroded and leaking. In June of 1988, the three engineer/managers were indicted for violation of RCRA, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. RCRA had been passed by Congress in 1976 and was intended to provide incentives for the recovery of important resources from wastes, the conservation of resources, and the control of the disposal of hazardous wastes. RCRA banned the dumping of solid hazardous wastes and included criminal penalties for violations of hazardous-waste disposal guidelines. The three managers claimed that they were not aware that the plant’s storage practices were illegal and that they did things according to accepted practices at the Pilot Plant. Interestingly, since this was a criminal prosecution, the Army could not help defray the costs of the manager’s defense, and each of them incurred great costs defending themselves. In 1989, the three engineer/managers were tried and convicted of illegally storing, treating, and disposing of hazardous wastes. There was no indication that these three were the ones who actually handled chemicals in an unsafe manner, but as managers of the plant, the three were ultimately responsible for how the chemicals were stored and for the maintenance of the safety equipment. The potential penalty for these crimes was up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $750,000. Gepp, Dee, and Lentz were each found guilty and sentenced to three years’ probation and 1,000 hours of community service. The relative leniency of the sentences was based partly on the large court cases each had already incurred.


1. What does utilitarianism tell us about the behavior of the Aberdeen Three? What does the “Respect for Persons” approach tell us? How are the virtues promoted or “demoted”? In analyzing this, start by determining who is harmed or potentially harmed by these activities and who benefits or potentially benefits from them.

2. Can the actions of these engineer/managers be classified as engineering decisions, management decisions, or both? Ethically, does it matter whether these decisions were engineering or management decisions?

3. Do you think that the Aberdeen Three knew about RCRA? If not, should they have? Does it really matter if they knew about RCRA or not?

Use the questions listed above as a jumping off point for your discussion board post. Do not answer these questions and then post in the forum. 50% of discussion board points will be deducted if you do so. Use these questions as a way to guide your discussion post.

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