I am working on a book on engineering ethics. My wife and I were talking about the ethical obligations of engineers and how that compares to the medical industry (which she is in). Engineers by canon, creed, code and law, have an obligation to protect the public health, safety and welfare above all else, including their clients and their firms. It is one of the reasons that engineering services provided to the public require a license and why codes exist to help guide design. My wife recently raised an interesting question – if licensure means that you must protect the public health, safety and welfare, can you sign and seal a project for which the consequences are not perfectly known? It harkens back to a lecture I do in my summer environmental science and engineering class – the infamous “What could possibly go wrong?” lecture. In that lecture we look at logging, mining, oil and gas and agriculture. I should note that we need each of these industries and will continue to need them for the foreseeable future, so abandoning any of them is not an acceptable answer. But in each case there are large, historical consequences, as well as current ongoing consequences. Let’s start with logging which fed the rapid development of many cities by providing accessible building materials. And actually let’s just start in the upper half of the state of Michigan where loggers cut timber across the state for over 50 years, eliminating white pines form many areas. The logs were sent down small streams and rivers, many of which had to be altered to take the logs. Rivers like the AuSable and Manistee changed completely afterward (starting with the loss of sweepers, increased siltation, the loss of the grayling (fish), and the need to introduce trout. Siltation is a difficult issue for water plants to deal with. Today the AuSable is a “high quality fishing water” with open fishing season, but limits of zero trout kept in many places or only really large fish (rare in cold water), which means catch and release only, which sounds more like – “not enough fish, so put them back” as opposed to high quality fishing waters. We needed the logs, but the impacts of logging were never considered and 150 years later, we still suffer the effects. Few engineers were involved.
Next we look at mining. Again we needed the gold, silver, lead, iron, etc. from the mines. The gold rushes started in the 1840s and expanded across the west. Material was dug out, metals processed and mines abandoned. The tailings from these mines STILL leach metals into waterways. The metals content remains toxic to ecology and to us in drinking water, and will continue be so for years. Metals are often expensive to remove via treatment. Sometimes the situation is serious enough that the federal government will construct treatment plants to protect downstream waters (drinking waters for people), as they have done in Leadville and Idaho Springs, Colorado. The tailings issue will be with us for years, which is why the mining industry is subject to regulations today. Maybe we learned something? Engineers have become more involved with mining with time, but historically, not so much.
With agriculture (Ag) the big issue is runoff and siltation. Siltation has increases as more property is farmed. The runoff also contains pesticides herbicides, and fertilizers, which impact downstream ecological sites, as well as creating difficulty for water treatment. Ag is largely unregulated with respect to runoff and best management practices are often lacking. The results include dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific. Engineers try to deal with water quality issues in rivers and streams, but the lack of ability to effect changes with Ag practices is limiting. There are situations like Everglades where the engineers did exactly what was asked (drain it), but no one asked the consequences (lack of water supply), or the impact of farming north of the Everglades (nutrients).
The Everglades results, along with the unknowns associated with fracking (primarily surface and transport) brought the question to my wife — should an engineer sign off on a project for which the consequences are uncertain, unstudied or potentially damaging the public health safety and welfare, like fracking wells, or oil/gas pipelines across the arctic (or Keystone)? Engineers design with the best codes and intentions and clearly the goal is to design to protect the public, but she has a great point – when you know there are uncertainties, and you know there are unknowns that could impact public health, safety and/or welfare, or which could create significant impacts, should we be signing off? I am not so sure. What are your thoughts?
There is an interesting ethical issues that arises in this discussion also. Engineers are entrusted to protect the public health, safety and welfare. When there were few people, projects did not impact many so little thought was given to the “what could possible happen” question. We are still paying for that. Now that there are more people, conflicts become more likely and more frequent. Most times engineers are not asked to evaluate the unintended consequences of the projects they build. Only to build them to protect the public health safety and welfare while doing so, but from a specific vantage point. So if you know a project will create a long-term consequence, what action should you take? There are many water supply examples, where we have engineered solutions that have brought water or treated water to allow development. South Florida is a great example – we drained half a state. But no one asked if that development was good or appropriate – we drained off a lot of our water supply in the process and messed up the ecological system that provided a lot of the recharge. No one asked in the 1930 if this was a good idea. Designing/building cities in the desert, designing systems that pump groundwater that does not recharge, or design systems that cannot be paid for by the community – we know what will happen at some point. So the question is whether there is a conflict between engineers meeting their obligations to the public and economic interests in such cases?
And finally, when considering the ethical issue: