Practical Environmental Ethics:
Is There an Obligation to Tell the Whole
G. Fred Lee, Ph.D., P.E.,
Anne Jones-Lee, Ph.D., Vice-President
G. Fred Lee & Associates
The Issue of Environmental
Does the engineer, scientist, or other technical
individual who works on issues of impacts of chemical contaminants on
public health or the environment, have a fundamental ethical and
professional obligation to tell the whole truth? The obvious and
undeniable answer is "yes, of course." Why, then, this paper?
The role of
engineers, scientists, and other technically educated/trained
individuals in project-advocacy and adversarial proceedings on behalf of
clients or employers has increased dramatically in the environmental
field over the past decades. In the authors' arenas of activity
(transport, fate, impacts, and control of chemical contaminants in water
and soil systems), many of the issues being addressed have significant
long-term public health and environmental quality ramifications, but
many of those ramifications may not be expected to be manifested in the
near-term. Technologies being considered and adopted are often untested
in real-time experience, but rather through "models" and other means to
estimate what may happen over the longer term of decades or more. Issues
of present cost-savings and the overall near-term economic climate and
profitability are of pressing concern to companies and the public. In
serving as an advisor/consultant or employee, the engineer/scientist is
often faced with a thinly veiled conflict of interest. By training and
published codes of ethics for engineers and other professionals, these
individuals should know to present the most reliable, technically valid,
complete picture of the issue at hand, and to outline significant
deficiencies and information inadequacies, independent of the position,
interests, and goals of the client or employer. Unfortunately, this is
often not being done today.
The field of environmental quality evaluation and management has become
immersed in the adversarial (legal) system for "resolving disputes"
among parties with different interests. In many cases, in the balance is
protection of public health; resolution of "disputes" often is
tantamount to "negotiating" the degree of public health protection that
will be provided. The
traditional engineering/scientific approach and the adversarial system
approach toward addressing complex environmental issues are
significantly different. In the adversarial system it is the
responsibility of "one side" to present only the strongest possible
technical discussion on behalf of the client; it is left to the "other
side" to bring out and discuss the weaknesses in the opponent's
technical position. While that approach is considered appropriate
in the courtroom, the problem that has developed today is that it is
routinely being followed by engineers and scientists in proceedings
outside of the courtroom that are quasi-judicial in nature, such as
appearances before regulatory boards in support of or opposition to
Despite the requirements for or appearance of disinterested reviews,
many of the engineering and environmental issue reports developed or
required by law (such as Environmental Impact Statements/Reports, and
project design documents), are fundamentally project- or client-advocacy
documents, prepared as though for litigation. It is common that
engineering and other technical reports today do not present a
disinterested discussion of the technical issues and information
An important clarification needs to be made with regard to the nature of
credible, disinterested review and what some define as a "balanced"
review. Some claim that to be a "balanced" review, none of the
available alternatives should be strongly favored or disfavored, and the
positive attributes of all be presented "equally." That concept of
"balance" is not a prerequisite for a technically credible,
disinterested review, and in many instances is inappropriate in the
presentation and review of technical information used for public health
quality management decisions.
How does the engineer or scientist - with a responsibility to tell the
whole truth complete with caveats, qualifiers, uncertainties, and
unanswered questions - participate in such proceedings? The responsible,
competent engineer/scientist presents the "whole" story to the
client/employer. He/she then may well be faced with the situation in
which the client or
employer wants only certain "positive" project-supportive information
revealed to the public, and other "detracting" information omitted.
If the technical information is to be useful to the client/employer, the
"expert" engineer/scientist must testify or otherwise make authoritative
presentation of those selected facts and information in technical
reports, at hearings, or at other proceedings before review boards.
Is it ethical for the
engineer/scientist to knowingly present partial truths, and not mention
technical deficiencies and limitations, etc. in public review,
non-courtroom arenas? Some professionals justify doing so on the basis
that they have to "play the game" according to the adversarial system
rules, even in the non-courtroom arena.
All too often, the needs and realities of maintaining a client, securing
future work, holding and advancing in one's position in a firm, and
inadequate funding to conduct quality and necessary work, compel some
engineers and scientists to exaggerate, diminish, mold, or otherwise
manipulate the presentation of the "whole truth."
However, as discussed below, the Codes
of Ethics of the National Society of Professional Engineers and the
American Society of Civil Engineers, for example, emphasize the
importance of full disclosure on matters of public health and safety.
Ethics On the Edge & Over the Edge: Experiences
In their work over the years, the authors have been
witness to some very disturbing non-courtroom practices of professionals
in the environmental quality field. Well-educated
professionals have been seen to support their clients' positions by the
partial quotation of published work, selectively eliminating strong
qualifying and limiting statements made by the cited authors. By
elimination of the qualifying statements, the meaning has been
significantly altered, at times to the opposite meaning of the whole
text from which passages have been extracted.
The words were quoted properly ... but was the whole
A number of other ethics concerns can be illustrated by practices
encountered today in the permitting of landfills.
It is recognized that wastes disposed on land are a threat to the
groundwater resources hydraulically connected to the disposal area. To
address this situation, regulations for landfills typically contain two
types of standards. One is the performance standard that must be
achieved by the design (such as the prevention of impairment of
groundwater quality/use for as long as the wastes represent a threat);
the other is minimum design requirements (prescriptive standards) that
must be incorporated (such as the thickness and permeability of a soil
liner). The prescriptive standards are not presumed by the regulations
to be sufficient to meet the performance standard in all instances at
all locations. The California Chapter 15 regulations governing land
disposal of wastes explicitly state the performance standard of
protection of groundwater quality from use-impairment for as long as the
wastes represent a threat. Those regulations also established minimum
prescriptive standards for landfill liners of one foot of soil compacted
to achieve a maximum permeability of 1x10-6 cm/sec. The regulations do
not state that the minimum prescriptive standard will allow achievement
of the performance standard. It is obvious from a simple Darcy's Law
calculation and the chemical characteristics and aquatic chemistry of
municipal landfill leachate components that a minimum-design liner will
be breached by leachate in a few months; the inadequacy of that type of
liner for preventing groundwater pollution by municipal landfill
leachate has been known in the technical field for many years.
The need and regulatory requirement to provide protection of groundwater
quality for as long as wastes/chemicals represent a threat leads to
additional questions of ethics in the description of the degree of
protection being provided by a particular engineered system. Few
responsible engineers will claim that a structure or engineered function
out of reach for inspection/repair (such as a landfill's plastic
sheeting or clay liner buried under hundreds of feet of garbage) can
maintain design integrity, much less conceptual function, forever.
However, professionals have been found to claim on behalf of landfill
project proponents that a particular engineered waste management
structure will, without question, be "protective" of groundwater
quality. Careful review of the words selected by such individuals shows,
however, that they typically are not claiming that the groundwater will
be protected from impact forever - just for some undefined, subjectively
described "long term." By saying that a structure or function will
provide "protection," or provide protection for a "very long time," but
not indicating the duration (when perpetual protection is required), is
the whole truth being told about the degree of protection being
Are such project-advocacy practices ethical?
Some professionals try to skirt the ethical problems of this type by
limiting their evaluation or discussion to consideration of whether or
not the letter of minimum design standards in regulations has been met
by the proposed project or report, tacitly presuming that the
regulations are sufficient to protect public health and environmental
quality. Surely it could be considered to be the "whole truth" if an
engineer or scientist simply states that the letter of the prescriptive
(e.g., design) requirement of the pertinent regulations has been
fulfilled, or even exceeded ... or is it? Those familiar with the
development of environmental regulations know that regulatory
requirements adopted are often compromises that incorporate political
and other non-technical considerations.
Furthermore, provisions of public health and environmental quality
regulations often lag technical advances and levels of understanding by
many years - or decades or more in controversial, or politically or
economically sensitive areas. A professional engineer or scientist
involved in such issues should be aware of current technical
understanding and information, and understand their implications for the
adequacy of current regulations (e.g., prescriptive standards). Is it
professionally ethical to simply limit testimony or consideration to
whether or not a project meets the prescriptive requirements, or to make
loaded statements about the project's going beyond what is required by
regulations, when proper consideration of the regulatory requirements
and the project shows them to be deficient for providing protection of
public health or environmental quality for as long as the wastes or
conditions remain a threat? Even with the known deficiencies in the
current California prescriptive standards, project proponent engineers
and consultants have presented "expert" statements that a particular
liner design "exceeds" that required. All they are really saying is that
their design is better than something that is known not to work. Is it
ethical to make misleading implications on the justification that the
words are true?
Significant problems have developed today in solid waste management
because technical staff of regulatory agencies have in many cases lost
sight of the purpose of the requirements (protection of public health
and environmental quality) and have focused on the design elements such
as a liner system with inadequate regard for how well the system will
protect public health and environmental quality; they allow construction
of landfills that meet minimum prescriptive requirements but that
obviously will not meet the performance standards. It has been
statements made by engineers and scientists on behalf of landfill
applicants attesting to the compliance of a particular landfill design
with prescriptive standards, and ignoring the performance standards,
that has allowed this to occur. This, in turn, as evolved out of the
desire of landfill applicants to provide the simplest, cheapest system
that will get by the regulatory agency staff; the public health and
environmental consequences will likely not be manifested for decades or
The appropriate design of a landfill containment system must include a
critical, in-depth, disinterested review of the ability of the proposed
system to protect public health, groundwater quality, and the
environment for as long as the wastes/chemicals represent a threat. Is
it ethical for an engineer or scientist to support the desire of a
client, a private landfill company or a public agency, to advocate the
construction of a landfill that will not meet the performance standard?
What is the responsibility of the engineer or scientist if the
performance standard is not adequate to protect public health or
environmental quality? Should he/she report on the inability of a
regulatory acceptable design to protect public health, or groundwater or
The services and counsel of professional engineers and
scientists, and other technically trained people are essential in
addressing public health and environmental quality protection issues in
arenas that present ethical quandary, including client/employer support,
and regulatory and adversarial proceedings. Personal professional
integrity, the integrity of the engineering and science professions, as
well as the protection of public health and environmental quality, all
suffer when the whole truth is stifled in matters of environmental
quality assessment and management.
professions are significantly damaged when engineering and science
professionals refrain from telling the whole truth.
The authors have seen numerous instances in which layperson regulatory
agencies and authorities, and judges discount technical information in
matters before them because they perceive the differences in technical
information being presented to be legitimate "disagreement among
experts." They are not in the position to be familiar with and
understand the technical literature, or to discern the
and cleaver wording; relative "demeanor" of "experts" is often the
deciding issue. In most environmental quality issues, conclusions that
can legitimately be considered "disagreement among qualified experts"
are few, and deal with subtleties and details, not fundamental
principles of engineering and science. Proper peer review of the
information presented is the manner in which the engineering and science
professional communities evaluate the credibility of technical positions
and findings. The
regulatory arena today does not in general promote proper peer review,
and in some instances precludes peer review of complex issues.
While the public commonly perceives the problem of "ethics" among
engineers and scientists to be largely associated with "industry,"
"waste generators," landfill companies, or other entities with economic
interest, the problem is also prevalent among professionals in
"environmental groups" and on regulatory technical staffs. The authors
have been witness to proceedings in which technical information has been
distorted or misrepresented by representatives of environmental activist
groups and regulatory agency staffs, and in which the results of
unreliable studies have been used to promote particular environmental
"causes" or pre-developed conclusions by such groups or individuals.
Codes of Ethics
The Code of Ethics for Engineers of the National Society
of Professional Engineers (NSPE, 1992) and the Code of Ethics and the
Guidelines to Practice of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE,
1993) address the types of ethical conduct issues raised above. Selected
principles outlined therein are quoted below:
Rules of Practice
"1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and
welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties.
a. Engineers shall at all times recognize that their primary obligation
is to protect the safety, health, property and welfare of the public. If
their professional judgment is overruled under circumstances where the
safety, health, property or welfare of the public are endangered, they
shall notify their employer or client and such other authority as may be
b. Engineers shall approve only those engineering documents which are
safe for public health, property and welfare in conformity with accepted
Engineers shall issue public statements only in an
objective and truthful manner.
a. 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."
"1. Engineers shall be guided in all their professional
relations by the highest standards of integrity.
a. Engineers shall admit and accept their own errors when proven wrong
and refrain from distorting or altering the facts in an attempt to
justify their decisions.
b. Engineers shall advise their clients or employers when they believe a
project will not be successful."
"3. Engineers shall
avoid all conduct or practice which is likely to discredit the
profession or deceive the public.
a. Engineers shall avoid the use of statements containing a material
misrepresentation of fact or omitting a material fact necessary to keep
statements from being misleading or intended or likely to create an
unjustified expectation; statements containing prediction of future
"Engineers uphold and advance the integrity, honor and dignity of the
engineering profession by:
1. using their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare;
2. being honest and impartial and serving with fidelity the public,
their employers and clients;
3. striving to increase the competence and prestige of the engineering
"1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and
welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties."
"c. Engineers whose professional judgment is overruled under
circumstances where the safety, health and welfare of the public are
endangered, shall inform their clients or employers of the possible
d. Engineers who have
knowledge or reason to believe that another person or firm may be in
violation of any of the provisions of Canon 1 shall present such
information to the proper authority in writing and shall cooperate with
the proper authority in furnishing such further information or
assistance as may be required."
"f. Engineers should
be committed to improving the environment to enhance the quality of life."
"3. Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and
a. Engineers should endeavor to extend the public knowledge of
engineering, and shall not participate in the dissemination of untrue,
unfair or exaggerated statements regarding engineering.
b. 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.
c. Engineers, when serving as expert witnesses, shall express an
engineering opinion only when it is founded upon adequate knowledge of
the facts, upon a background of technical competence, and upon honest
Summary and Recommendations
Until the motivation for compromise, adjustment, and
disregard of ethics and integrity has been eliminated, or until there is
sufficient disincentive for such practice, it will likely increase, and
continue to be rationalized. At the core is clearly the avarice of
companies and firms which metastasizes to employees and consultants. For
some, this translates to fear of lost employment or to loss of clients
or future business if the whole truth is not shaded or molded to fit the
interests of the client or company.
fact is that consultants do lose business and clients, and opportunities
for future work from both government agency and private clients when
they do not bend to unjustified inclinations of the client - when they
do not say "what the client wants to hear." Environmentalists and
regulatory staff are often driven by zeal to promote a particular cause
or position. While such energy is admirable, some positions are held and
pursued irrespective of the technical information; face-savings and
funding considerations play a role in the drive to "win" for the
position rather than to accomplish appropriate protection of public
health and environmental quality with the risk of appearance of "giving
in" to others' interests.
Contributing to the incentive for
is the litigious arena for addressing environmental quality issues. As
noted above, the philosophy of the adversary system is inconsistent with
that of the engineering and science communities' examination of all key
aspects of an issue based on sound technical information and principles
of engineering and science. In the adversary system, as well as in many
aspects of the regulatory system, laypersons, or others without high
degrees of expertise in the topic, are called upon to render judgements
on the merits of technical arguments, findings, and principles. Those
who question or who stand to be adversely affected by a particular
project often do not have the financial and technical resources to hire
competent technical advisors to examine the merits of the technical
information and conclusions presented by project proponents. The
unreliability and perception of unreliability of technical information,
and assurances of protection of public health and environmental quality
provided by project advocates has contributed to the justification of
the NIMBY attitude.
It is clear that the
less-than-ethical practices of some in the broad environmental quality
management area are harming the reputation of the professions, the
confidence of the public in the professions and the regulatory agencies
charged with protecting its interests, as well as the ability to ensure
reliable protection of public health and environmental quality.
underlying conditions and realities causing these problems are not
likely to be changed in the foreseeable future. One approach that may
help neutralize the effects of biased practices of some
professionals, both project advocates and opponents, may be to
incorporate a requirement with project applications for funding
disinterested technical review
that would be presented directly to the regulatory agency,
decision-makers, and interested parties. Such an approach would
provide some impetus for project consultants and advocates to be more
forthcoming with reliable information, or to be faced with exposure in a
peer-review public arena. It could also ease the NIMBY situation if
individuals, communities, and interest groups had a mechanism for
independent review and reporting of technical information.
It is recommended that a percentage of the cost of any proposed project
with potentially significant public health or environmental quality
implications, be made available for proper peer review of the project
and required project documents such as Environmental Impact Statements
and Environmental Impact Reports. While EIR's and EIS's should provide
the vehicle for full technical disclosure, it has been the authors'
experience that such documents rarely provide reliable in-depth review
of complex technical issues, especially as they relate to the
implications and management of chemical contaminants in the environment.
Such reviews are typically superficial in these areas, and as noted
above, are basically project-advocacy documents. It is recommended that
every project applicant be required to conduct plausible worst-case
scenario evaluations for projects involving chemical contaminants in the
environment. Such evaluations must include consideration of: the nature,
transport, fate, and effects of chemical contaminants under plausible
worst-case conditions, the ability of the project's monitoring system to
detect impending public health and environmental quality impairment
under plausible worst-case conditions, the actions that would be taken
in response to such detection, the magnitude of harm to public health
and environmental quality that could result from inadequate response
actions to plausible worst-case conditions, the magnitude and source of
funding available for as long as the wastes/chemicals represent a
threat, for corrective action required under plausible worst-case
conditions, and the adequacy of the public health and environmental
protection regulatory standards or other requirements applicable to the
project, as well as potential future changes in those standards.
plausible worst-case scenario evaluation
would be among the materials provided for peer review of the project.
The adoption of this approach would provide the public, the regulatory
community, as well as officers of the courts with a much better
understanding of the potential consequences of undertaking a particular
project or activity. It would also be
a major step in
reversing the tide of unethical practices that have become common in the
environmental quality management field today.
ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers), "Code of
Ethics," ASCE Official Register, ASCE, New York (1993).
NSPE (National Society of Professional Engineers), "Code of Ethics for
Engineers," November (1992).
References as: "Lee, G. F. and Jones-Lee, A., 'Practical Environmental
Ethics: Is There an Obligation to Tell the Whole Truth?,' Published in
condensed form "Environmental Ethics: The Whole Truth" Civil
Engineering, Forum, 65:6 (1995)."