Adapted from material by: The Aberdeen Three
Department of Philosophy and Department of Mechanical Engineering, Texas A&M University
NSF Grant Number DIR-9012252

Introduction to the Case

The Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland is a US Army facility where, among other things, chemical weapons were developed. The “Aberdeen Three” Case involved three high-level civilian managers at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. All three managers were chemical engineers in charge of the development of chemical weapons. In 1989, the three engineers were indicted for a criminal felony, tried, and convicted of illegally handling, storing, and disposing of hazardous wastes, in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The violations occurred between 1983 and 1986.


Organizations and People Involved

Aberdeen Proving Ground – US Army facility, which employed the following three civilians: 

Carl Gepp – Manager at the Pilot plant. He answered to Dee and Lentz.

William Dee – Developed the binary chemical weapon. He headed the chemical weapons development team.

Robert Lentz – In charge of developing the processes that would be used to manufacture chemical weapons.

US Justice DepartmentJane Barrett – Prosecuting attorney

Key Dates

1976 – Congress passes the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

September 17, 1985 – Acid tank leaks into Canal Creek.

March 26, 1986 – Pilot Plant shut down.

June 28, 1988 – Gepp, Dee, and Lentz indicted.

January–February 1989
– Trial of the “Aberdeen Three.”

May 11, 1989 – “Aberdeen Three” each sentenced to 1000 hours community service and three years probation.

Key Issues

How does the implied social contract of professionals apply to this case?
What professional responsibilities did the three engineers neglect, if any?

Details of the Case

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

In 1976, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The purpose of the act was to provide technical and financial assistance for the development of management plans and facilities for the recovery of energy and other resources from discarded materials and for the safe disposal of discarded materials, and to regulate the management of hazardous waste.

This 1976 act expanded the Solid Waste Disposal Act, thereby authorizing state program-and-implementation grants for providing incentives for recovery of resources from solid wastes, resource conservation, and control of hazardous waste disposal. In addition to establishing the EPA Office of Solid Waste, requiring state planning and a ban on open dumping of solid hazardous wastes, RCRA also implemented criminal fines for violations of the open dumping or hazardous waste disposal guidelines.

Aberdeen Proving Grounds

Aberdeen is a US Army facility where, among other things, chemical weapons are developed. All three engineers involved in the case were experts in the chemical weapons field, and Dee was responsible for developing the binary chemical weapon. The US Army has used the Aberdeen Proving Ground to develop, test, store, and dispose of chemical weapons since World War II. Periodic inspections between 1983 and 1986 revealed serious problems at the facility, known as the Pilot Plant, where these engineers worked. 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.

The funds for the cleanup would not have even come out of the engineers’ budget — the Army would have paid the cost. All the managers had to do was make a request for the Army cleanup funds, but they made no effort to resolve the situation.

When an external sulfuric acid tank leaked 200 gallons of acid into a nearby river, state and federal investigators arrived and discovered that the chemical retaining dikes were unfit, and the system designed to contain and treat hazardous chemicals was corroded and leaking chemicals into the ground. The three engineers maintained that they did not believe the plant’s storage practices were illegal, and that their job description did not include responsibility for specific environmental rules. They were chemical engineers, they practiced good “engineering sense,” and had never had an incident. They were just doing things the way they had always been done at the Pilot Plant.

The judicial process

On June 28, 1988, after about two years of investigation, the three chemical engineers, Carl Gepp, William Dee, and Robert Lentz, now known as the “Aberdeen Three,” were criminally indicted for storing, treating, and disposing of hazardous wastes in violation of RCRA at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Six months following the indictment, the Federal Government took the case of the “Aberdeen Three” to court. Each defendant was charged with four counts of illegally storing and disposing of waste.

In 1989, the three chemical engineers were tried and convicted of illegally storing, treating, and disposing of hazardous waste. William Dee was found guilty on one count, and Lentz and Gepp were found guilty on three counts each of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Although they were not the ones who were actually performing the illegal acts, they were the managers and allowed the improper handling of the chemicals. No one above them knew about the extent of the problems at the Pilot Plant.

Each faced up to 15 years in prison and $750,000 in fines, but were sentenced only to three years probation and 1000 hours of community service. The judge based his decision on the high standing of the defendants in the community, and the fact they they had already incurred enormous court costs. Since this was a criminal indictment, the US Army could not assist in their legal defense. This case marked the first time that individual federal employees were convicted of a criminal act under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Discussion of the Ethical Issues


  1. What could the three engineers have done differently?
  2. What, if anything, could their subordinates have done differently?
  3. What, if anything, could their superiors (i.e., the Army command) have done differently?
  4. Should the Justice department have done anything differently?
  5. Do you think the judge’s sentencing of the “Aberdeen Three” was too lenient or too harsh? Why?

The actions of the three engineers bring to mind an important question. These engineers were knowledgeable about the effects of hazardous chemicals on people and the environment (they developed chemical weapons), so why were they seemingly so unconcerned about the disposal of hazardous chemicals? It is interesting to note that even after they were convicted, the three engineers showed no apparent remorse for their wrongdoing. They kept insisting that the whole case was blown out of proportion, and that they had done nothing wrong. All containers of hazardous chemical have labels which state that the chemicals must be disposed of according to RCRA requirements, yet the three engineers maintained that they had no knowledge of RCRA. Perhaps the best answer to this question is that they did not hold their responsibilities to the public as engineers as high on their list of priorities as other responsibilities they held.
To better understand the responsibility of the engineer, some key elements of the professional responsibilities of an engineer should be examined.
As engineers test designs for ever-increasing speeds, loads, capacities and the like, they must always be aware of their obligation to society to protect the public welfare. After all, the public has provided engineers, through the tax base, the means for obtaining an education and, through legislation, the means to license and regulate themselves. In return, engineers have a responsibility to protect the safety and well-being of the public in all of their professional efforts. This is part of the implicit social contract all engineers have agreed to when they accepted admission to an engineering college.

According to the prosecution, the three engineers involved in the Aberdeen case placed a low priority on this responsibility to society, and instead emphasized the importance of their military mission. The first canon in the ASME Code of Ethics urges engineers to “hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties.” Every major engineering code of ethics reminds engineers of the importance of their responsibility to keep the safety and well being of the public at the top of their list of priorities. Although company loyalty is important, it can, in some circumstances be damaging to the company, if the employee does not think about the long-term effects of his actions on the company.

It is a sad fact about loyalty that it invites… single-mindedness. Single-minded pursuit of a goal is sometimes delightfully romantic, even a real inspiration. But it is hardly something to advocate to engineers, whose impact on the safety of the public is so very significant. Irresponsibility, whether caused by selfishness or by magnificently unselfish loyalty, can have most unfortunate consequences.
The engineers were also unaware that their experiments and their handling of waste products had social impact, even though they considered themselves to be far removed from the outside world. The leaking of sulfuric acid into Canal Creek quickly disproved their claim of being removed from the outside world. No matter how far an engineer feels removed from society, he still has an effect on it, even if it is an indirect one. Even though the Pilot Plant was located on a military base, it still had to follow the RCRA guidelines, regardless of its military mission.
In addition to their responsibilities to society in general, the “Aberdeen Three” also had responsibilities to their subordinates, which they also overlooked. It was one of these employees who originally went to the press and exposed what was going on at the Pilot Plant. Employees were working under conditions where chemicals were dripping down from leaky pipes above them, and in violation of RCRA rules. Employees who had no hazardous materials training were ordered to handle and dispose of chemicals of which they had little or no knowledge. Whether or not there were rules for the training of employees who would be handing hazardous materials, the three engineers had a responsibility to those employees to inform them of what they were dealing with and how to handle the waste materials properly.
The three engineers convicted in this case were well aware of the dangers the chemicals they worked with on a daily basis posed to society, yet they allowed their unfounded feelings of separation from the outside world and their misguided loyalty to their military mission to lessen the importance they placed on their responsibility to society as engineers. The prosecutor in the case had this to say about the Aberdeen Three: “These are experts in their field. If they can’t be expected to enforce the law, then I’m not sure who can.”


Annotated Bibliography

  • Curd, Martin and May, Larry, “Professional Responsibility for Harmful Actions,” Module Series in Applied Ethics, Center for the Studies of Ethics in the Professions, Illinois Institute of Technology, 1984.
    This essay explores the grounds on which professionals should be held responsible for harms caused by their actions. Most examples used concern engineers, designers, and architects involved in real-life cases from tort law.
  • Davis, Michael, “Thinking Like An Engineer: The Place of a Code of Ethics in the Practice of a Profession,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring 1991, pp. 150-167. (see also, “Explaining Wrongdoing,” Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 20, Numbers 1&2, Spring/Fall 1989, pp. 74-90.
    In these lucid essays, Davis argues that “a code of professional ethics is central to advising individual engineers how to conduct themselves, to judging their conduct, and ultimately to understanding engineering as a profession.” Using the now infamous Challenger disaster as his model, Davis discusses both the evolution of engineering ethics as well as why engineers should obey their professional codes of ethics, from both a pragmatic and ethically-responsible point of view. Essential reading for any graduating engineering student.
  • Nesteruk, Jeffrey, “The Ethical Significance of Corporate Law,” Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 10, No. 9, September 1991, pp. 723-727.
    In this article, the focus is corporate decision-making structures, and conflicts regarding particular role obligations. Nesteruk argues that as laws change, so do the roles in the corporate hierarchy, thereby creating problems in the legal scholarship of corporate social responsibility.
  • Robinson, Carlton C., “Safety — An Important Responsibility,” ITE Journal (Institute of Transportation Engineers), Vol. 61, No. 7, July 1991, pp. 21-24.
    This article discusses safety as a critical ingredient for transport engineers and their managers.
  • Schapker, Dennis R., “Tort Reform and Design Professionals,” Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering, Vol. 116, July 1990, pp. 258-265.
    Discusses the battle over tort reform and how it has affected the engineering profession since 1980. It is a call for engineers to get involved in the debate.
  • Stone, Christopher D. Where the Law Ends: The Social Control of Corporate Behavior. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
    This book looks at corporate moral behavior; in particular, how law is a reaction to misdeeds in business behavior. Stone provides a thorough, albeit negative analysis of corporate ethics, and provides recommendations for promoting ethical behavior. Although written in 1975, the book still holds value for the student interested in social responsibility versus legal liability issues.
  • Tomlinson, Don E., “Choosing Social Responsibility Over Law: The Soldier of Fortune Classified Advertising Cases,” Business and Professional Ethics, Vol. 9, Nos. 1&2, Spring-Summer 1990, pp. 79-96.
    This article discusses the ethics of the Soldier of Fortune‘s guns-for-hire advertisements that resulted in several murders across the United States.