Professionalism/Gepp, Dee, and Lentz, and the leak at Aberdeen Proving Ground

The Aberdeen Three IncidentEdit

Aberdeen Proving Ground Historical Marker

The Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland is the oldest US military testing facility for chemical weapons. In 1980, Congress approved the development of binary nerve gas weapons at the proving ground. The project was headed by three civilian chemical engineers. Robert Lentz designed the binary nerve gas production process, William Dee led the team, and Carl Gepp managed Pilot Plant operations. After 5 years, they successfully refined the manufacturing process, only to be shut down by what became known as the Aberdeen Three incident.[1]

Acid Leak and IndictmentEdit

In 1985, an outdoor acid tank at the Pilot Plant started to leak. An engineer used a bucket to contain the minor leak, but it grew and acid seeped through an improperly maintained dike and into the ground. The acid spilled into Canal Creek, which feeds the Chesapeake Bay. Fish were killed as a result, but the spill posed a risk to public health. State regulators launched an investigation but the Army turned them away. The FBI intervened to run the investigation. They determined that the dike surrounding the tank and the chemical treatment system were improperly maintained.[1]

Additional unreported violations contributed to the shutdown of the Pilot Plant in 1986. Even before the acid leak, Army inspections reported several safety violations at the Pilot Plant; one inspector remarked that the lab “looked like his kid’s room.” Flammable and carcinogenic chemicals were left in open and unlabeled containers. Chemicals that would become lethal if mixed were left in the same room. Another time, several drums of chemicals spilled after a partial roof collapse and no one cleaned it up. The Army provided resources to clean up chemical spills on demand, but no one requested it.[1]

After three years of investigation, the three men, later known as the Aberdeen Three, were charged with illegally storing, handling, and disposing of hazardous materials under the Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA).[1] The act dictated proper handling and disposal of hazardous waste, specifying criminal penalties for violations.

Defense and ConvictionEdit

The Aberdeen Three maintained that they had done nothing wrong throughout the trial, arguing that environmental responsibilities were not a part of their job description. They believed that the experienced Pilot Plant workers did not need to be told how to handle hazardous materials and relied on a treatment system to neutralize waste. Also, what the inspectors considered hazardous waste, the engineers considered to be a precious resource because it took a long time to order new chemicals. Lastly, the Aberdeen Three claimed federal immunity because they were working for the Army, a federal entity, so they could only be tried in military courts. However, the court determined that civilian employees of the Army could not claim immunity. The court rejected their arguments and the Aberdeen Three were convicted in 1989 of violating the RCRA. The judge gave them three years probation and 1000 community service hours instead of the maximum 15 years jail time.[2]

Generalizable LessonsEdit

Responsibility to Public Welfare and Environmental SafetyEdit

The code of ethics for the American Institute of Chemical Engineers explicitly states, “[Members shall] hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and protect the environment in performance of their professional duties.”[3] This is a clause common to all engineering codes of ethics. The ethic is based on an implicit social contract between engineers and society. Society provides the funding, educational institutions, and other means for engineers pursue their careers. In return, engineers are obligated to serve the public interest and hold public safety above all else.[4] The Aberdeen Three prioritized both their chemical weapons project and the needs of the army over public welfare. Several social phenomenon drove this neglect. It is important to take note of these and avoid them in engineering practice to avoid future catastrophes.

Normalization of DevianceEdit

The driving force behind the Aberdeen Three’s improper chemical handling is Normalization of Deviance. This concept, coined by Diane Vaughan, states that people who become accustomed to deviant behavior will consider it the norm and continue to stray further the norm until something goes wrong. In this case, the norm is safe handling and storage of hazardous chemicals. The Aberdeen Three allowed their Pilot Plant to deviate further from this because prior to the acid spill, there had been no consequences.

Diffusion of ResponsibilityEdit

The Aberdeen Three believed that they were not at fault. Lentz stated, “There is a chain of command and defined responsibilities and we certainly conducted ourselves in line with the job description and responsibilities.”[1] This implies that adherence to environmental regulations was not a part of their job description. This is a classic case of Diffusion of Responsibility where the Aberdeen Three believe it was the job of their superiors to follow RCRA regulations.

Social InsulationEdit

Another cause of the Aberdeen Three’s neglect for environmental regulations may be a sense of insulation from society. The Aberdeen Three’s perception that the Pilot Plant could not affect surrounding areas caused them to disregard environmental safety. “They called themselves the ‘motley crowd’ and the ‘unwanted ones,’ men who'd worked quietly for years behind the double row of razor-wire fence...”[1] Not only was the Pilot Plant, located on a secure military base, physically isolated from society, but the employees perceive themselves as social outcasts.

Immunity (Ring of Gyges)Edit

Most sources identify the Aberdeen Three as responsible for the Pilot Plant events, but indirect evidence suggests that the U.S. Army promoted poor environmental practice. For example, Army inspectors had noted the poor upkeep of the Pilot Plant prior to the acid spill, but never acted to resolve the issue and tried to turn state inspectors away.[1] Additionally, an EPA evaluation of the proving grounds stated, “Virtually all the land areas of the site contain contaminated or potentially contaminated sites and potentially buried ordnance.”[5] This shows that the Army had been exercising poor housekeeping, and the Pilot Plant was not an isolated case. A common thread between that Army’s poor housekeeping of the proving grounds and the Pilot Plant incident was that the Army never suffered any serious ramifications. In a way, the U.S. Army wears a Ring of Gyges. This originates from a Platonian allegory illustrating the concept that people only behave ethically when there is a consequence, wherein the Ring of Gyges grants invisibility and enables people to act unethically.[6] The Army is able to avoid consequences because they are immune to criminal prosecution.[2] This immunity is what fosters negligence towards environmental responsibilities.

Parallel Case Study: Deepwater Horizon Oil SpillEdit

The Deepwater Horizon incident has many parallels to the Aberdeen Three case. In 2009, British Petroleum (BP) filed an exploration and environmental analysis plan for drilling the Macondo Prospect in the Gulf of Mexico. BP stated it was unlikely an accidental oil spill would occur.[7] They also stated that in the event of a spill, the distance from shore and response capabilities were good enough to mitigate environmental damage. Mineral Management Services, purportedly heavily influenced by the oil industry, exempted BP from additional environmental impact studies. Additionally, a change in regulation exempted them from filing a plan to handle blowouts.[8] Thus, BP took advantage and immediately began drilling in Fall 2009.[9]

Explosion of the Deepwater Horizon

In February 2010, Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon was contracted to replace the original rig.[9] By spring, the rig was five weeks behind schedule because the drilling was problematic. To speed up drilling, a BP executive decided to switch from heavy mud to seawater despite protest from the drilling crew.[10] Heavy mud is used to reduce the threat of a blowout.[9] Later that night, on April 20, 2010, a blowout occurred on the Deepwater Horizon. Methane gas shot up the drill to the oil rig and exploded. The rig was evacuated, but the explosion resulted in the largest oil spill in history and the loss of eleven lives.[11] The BP executive believed it was his job to finish the well quickly, but neglected the safety of the environment and the crew.

Investigations after the explosion uncovered illegal modifications to equipment. A device that shuts down the drill when dangerous gas levels were detected had been disabled for five years. A transocean supervisor stated that “the entire [transocean] fleet runs them in bypass.” Additionally, sensors that activate alarms when fire or dangerous levels of gases are detected had been shut off for over a year because people didn’t want to be disturbed with false alarms.[12] The drilling crew became accustomed to the deviation from standard safety protocol, until it failed catastrophically.

The lax regulations allowed BP to operate with a perceived “Ring of Gyges” and ignore safety considerations. In reality, the absence of regulatory hurdles did not render BP immune to the consequences of poor safety conduct. The BP official also neglected safety and environmental concerns to expedite drilling. The crew of the Deepwater Horizon permitted normalization of deviance by disabling safety equipment. These were some of the same underlying errors behind the Aberdeen Three incident.


Aftermath of the Aberdeen ThreeEdit

The Army assured the government and the public that all lethal chemical agents at the closed Pilot Plant had been moved to a modern facility. While removing lab equipment to prepare for demolition in 1991, 1,000 gallons of toxic sludge and a container of lethal nerve agent were discovered at the building. Once again the RCRA was violated, but this time the Army was directly culpable.[13]

No one was charged for violating regulations because officials determined that the storage "did not pose a threat to the public." The materials in question were removed and the Army was fined.[13] Clearly, they had not learned from the Aberdeen Three case.

Future Research and MoralEdit

The Aberdeen Three incident is a notable event in engineering ethics history, but appears poorly documented. The Washington Post article is the only source that detailed the event and quoted the Aberdeen Three. The sources are strangely biased against the Aberdeen Three, and don’t highlight the shortcomings of the Army. Future research should look into related environmental issues associated with Army operations to better define their role.

In the workplace, many will be tempted to compromise their ethical obligations while under pressure to complete assignments. True professionals will avoid the pitfalls of The Aberdeen Three. We must fulfill both ethical and occupational responsibilities, knowing that the consequences of taking shortcuts can be dire.


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  1. a b c d e f g h Weisskoph, S. (1989). The Aberdeen Mess. Washington Post Magazine.
  2. a b c United States v Dee, 912 F.2d 741. (1990).
  3. a b Code of Ethics. (2015). American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).
  4. a b Department of Philosophy and Department of Mechanical Engineering. (2006). Engineering Ethics: The Aberdeen Three. Texas A&M University.
  5. a b Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (2015). Current Site Information, Aberdeen Proving Ground (Edgewood), MD Superfund | Mid-Atlantic Superfund.
  6. a b Plato (abridged by Peter Norton). (380AD). The Ring of Gyges from The Republic, book 2.
  7. a b CBS/APApril. (2010). BP Didn’t Plan for Major Oil Spill. CBSNews.
  8. a b Kunzelman, M., & Pienciak, R. T. (2010). Feds Let BP Avoid Filing Blowout Plan For Gulf Oil Rig. The Huffington Post.
  9. a b c d Spear, K. (2010). Documents show BP chose a less-expensive, less-reliable method for completing well in Gulf oil spill. Orlando Sentinel.
  10. a b Bronstein, S., & Drash, W. (2010). Rig survivors: BP ordered shortcut on day of blast. CNN.
  11. a b Schwartz, N., & Weber, H. R. (2010). Bubble of methane triggered rig blast. Southern California Public Radio.
  12. a b Pilkington, E. (2010). Deepwater Horizon alarms were switched off “to help workers sleep.” The Guardian.
  13. a b c Reid, B. (1993). Army admits new poisons at Aberdeen. The Baltimore Sun.