The “Aberdeen Three”

Introduction

This is a case in which the willful disregard of standard chemical safety, storage, and disposal rules by three chemical professionals resulted in the discharge of hazardous chemicals into the public environment surrounding the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. They were all chemical engineers who should have been knowledgeable about the management of the chemicals used and the chemical waste generated. All three were tried and convicted in 1989 of illegally handling, storing, and disposing of hazardous wastes in violation of RCRA, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Chemical professionals have a clear mandate to use their unique position to protect their community and the environment. From the ACS Professional Employment Guidelines:

Chemical professionals are responsible for working safely and employing all necessary safety procedures in the course of their professional duties. The employer is responsible for providing physical facilities that enable the chemical professional to work safely, comfortably and efficiently. The chemical professional and the employer should work to reduce risks to the environment. The employer is responsible for providing appropriate information, physical facilities and equipment that enable the chemical professional to work safely, comfortably and efficiently. The chemical professional is responsible for seeking information on the safe handling of chemicals and equipment with which they work.

The chemical professional should inform the employer and coworkers in writing and/or verbally, as appropriate, of any immediate or potential safety or health hazards. All appropriate personnel should be trained in the proper handling of material and equipment and all pertinent safety procedures to minimize risks.

The chemical professional and the employer should both work to minimize risks to the environment. The chemical professional and the employer should strive to ensure that products and processes are safe and that potential hazards to human health or the environment, including air emissions, water effluents, and discharges to land are minimized, properly identified and handled in such a way as to protect the environment. Employers should conduct appropriate environmental studies to ensure the health and safety of their workers and the surrounding community.

While the magnitude of the chemical release in this incident is probably greater than want would be normally encountered in an academic setting, it is certainly of a scale that could be encountered in an industrial setting and therefore has direct applicability to a wide range of our colleagues, particularly students getting ready to graduate and take that first job.

Background reading

A case study from Texas A&M used to illustrate the incident. This web site has a good bibliography at the end for those individuals interested in exploring the responsibility of engineers and scientists toward the public.

(also available through the Online Ethics Center) http://www.onlineethics.org/CMS/profpractice/ppcases/texindex/aberdeen.aspx

Ethical considerations

Consider the following statement from PEG: The chemical professional should inform the employer and coworkers in writing and/or verbally, as appropriate, of any immediate or potential safety or health hazards.

• What were the responsibilities of the lab technicians (not the Aberdeen Three) with respect to reporting the long-standing issues regarding improper storage of chemicals and chemical waste at the Pilot Plant?

• Now consider that these employees may have been in fear of losing their jobs should they “rock the boat” by exposing the conditions that they knew were dangerous. What were their options?

• What would you have done if you had been employed in the Pilot Plant in 1984 (before the acid spill)?

• What would you do if you discovered egregious violations of chemical storage practices in your research environment tomorrow?

Consider the following statement from PEG: The employer is responsible for providing appropriate information, physical facilities and equipment that enable the chemical professional to work safely, comfortably and efficiently.

The Pilot Plant facility failed numerous inspections in the years preceding the acid spill.

From the TAMU site:

These problems included

* flammable and cancer-causing substances left in the open

* chemicals that become lethal if mixed were kept in the same room

* drums of toxic substances were leaking. There were chemicals everywhere - misplaced, unlabeled or poorly contained. When part of the roof collapsed, smashing several chemical drums stored below, no one cleaned up or moved the spilled substance and broken containers for weeks.

• What are the ethical responsibilities of the employer (the Aberdeen Proving Ground, in this case) to the employees in the Pilot Plant?

• What do you expect was the fate of the inspection reports that had been submitted over the years? What does this say about the institutional culture at the Aberdeen Proving Ground regarding safety?