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Disposing of Toxic Waste



Author(s) Michael Pritchard
Authoring Institution Center for the Study of Ethics in Society at Western Michigan University
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Contributor(s) Michael Pritchard
Notes Case study originally published in “Teaching Engineering Ethics: A Case Study Approach” by Michael Pritchard. Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University, 1992.
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Authoring Institution (obsolete) Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University
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Year 1992
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
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  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago

    One thing that L. Bryan can do is to follow orders. Another
    is to do what he thinks ought to be done with the machine
    coolant. A third is to make an issue out of Max's or the
    company's environmentally irresponsible practices.

    If he follows Max's instructions, dumping half of the used
    coolant down the drain, diluting it with tap water, L. Bryan
    himself is not going to get into any trouble. No inspectors are
    going to blame him, a summer forklifter following orders from
    his supervisor, for anything that may be illegal or detrimental
    to the environment. And 25 gallons are probably not going to
    make much difference anyway. He will keep his job; things will
    go on as before. If he feels uncomfortable today, maybe he
    won't be required to do something tomorrow that he thinks is
    harmful. If it happens day after day, he can then think about
    quitting or at least getting a different job next summer. After
    all, it is not his choice that the coolant be disposed of this
    way; so why should he regard himself as responsible? If the
    company were able to automate the process, they wouldn't even
    have a human forklifter involved. He is no more responsible
    than a mechanized conveyer belt would be.

    Presumably half of the waste coolant is poured down the
    drain to avoid more expensive costs of disposal, by weight, of
    the coolant drums. Half empty drums don't weigh as much as full
    ones. Since Max has left and is presumably not watching, L.
    Bryan could do with the whole drum what he's expected to do
    with the half in which the toxins supposedly settle. Without
    emptying out half, he could take the full drum to its
    destination. He would then have not personally participated in
    the company's illegal and destructive activity. He wouldn't
    have done anything to change what they've "been doing for
    years, and nothing's happened", but he could feel that on that
    one occasion, the right thing was done. When Max found out, as
    he likely would, L. Bryan would certainly get balled out and
    probably lose his job, but he might believe it worth it to do
    what is the right thing to do.

    The third possibility is to make an issue of the practice.
    He probably can't expect Max's supervisor not to know what is
    going on. How far up the supervisory scale would he have to go
    before anyone would care? Would anyone care anywhere up? If he
    isn't going to get a sympathetic ear from within the company,
    should he report the practice to some environmental group,
    either the state Environmental Protection Agency or some
    private group concerned with protecting the environment? Or a
    newspaperman who has been doing investigative reporting on
    violations of environmental regulations?

    No matter how much L. Bryan believes in conserving the
    environment, which one to do depends partly upon the expected

    If he takes the third option, how likely is he to bring
    about a change, how difficult will it be, how much will it cost
    him? If he goes over Max's head with his protest, he is most
    likely to get nowhere and to be out of a job. If he seeks
    publicity, how much trouble is it going to be to him, and how
    likely that he gets anyone's interest? These things happen
    everyday in thousands of companies. The environmental agencies
    have more than they can handle in reports of incorrect disposal
    of toxic chemicals. What good is his report going to be? And if
    he does gets someone's attention, who wants to make a legal
    case or an investigative report on it, is L. Bryan getting in
    over his head? He is supposed to have a summer job to make
    money to pay for school. Can he afford at this point to become
    a serious environmental activist?

    If L. Bryan replaces the drum without emptying it, he has
    kept "clean hands" with regard to the company's polluting. He
    can think to himself that if all people refused to do things
    destructive of the environment, that would make a big
    difference. But what other people do is not affected by what L.
    Bryan does here and now. His 25 gallons don't make a big
    difference to the environment, but his disobeying the orders of
    his boss may make a big difference as to how much money he
    makes this summer.

    Another possibility is that Max may be right. The toxins may
    settle to the bottom. Perhaps L. Bryan should do some research
    on the question before sticking his neck out in protest. He
    might also do some research on environmental law to see if the
    company is doing something illegal. If he finds out that toxins
    do settle so that the environmental damage is not as great as
    otherwise, but also finds out that what the company is doing is
    strictly illegal, is L. Bryan in an ethically better or worse
    situation? He is now working for a company which is not doing
    as much harm as he feared, but it is one that is engaged in
    illegal dumping. What if L. Bryan were not a summer forklifter
    but a regular employee? How much difference would that make in
    the action which he should take?

    Twenty-five gallons of toxic coolant may be a relatively
    small matter on the scale of current environmental destruction.
    What if it were not a half drum down the drain, but hundreds of
    drums into a river or lake? If you conclude that L. Bryan
    should do as he is told, when do you draw the line and say that
    he should not do as told? If you are an employee in situations
    like this, is it disloyal to go outside the company to expose
    their improper practices? Should you first have exhausted all
    possibilities of getting a change of policy by working within
    the company?


    • Davis, Michael. "Avoiding the Tragedy of Whistleblowing",
      Business and Professional Ethics Journal, Vol 8, No 4, Summer
      1988, pp. 3-19.

    • Dandekar, Natalie. "Can Whistle Blowing be Fully
      Legitimized? A Theoretical Discussion" in Business and
      Professional Ethics Journal, Vol 10, No 1, Spring 1991.

    • DeGeorge, Richard T. Business Ethics, New York: MacMillan
      Press, 1982. Goldberg, David Theo. "Tuning Into Whistle
      Blowing", in Business and Professional Ethics Journal, Vol 7,
      No 2, Summer 1988.

    • James, Gene G. "In Defense of Whistle Blowing" in
      Business Ethics: Readings and Cases in Corporate Morality.
      Hoffman, Michael W. and Jennifer Moor (eds.), 1984.

  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago

    L. Bryan Springer has at least four options, and perhaps
    some middle ground combinations of the four. Just listing them
    to start offers a basis of discussion for leading to a
    personally acceptable course of action for L. Bryan to follow.
    The options:

    1. Do as he is told and nothing else.

    2. Do as he is told, but on his own time develop as
      convincing a documented argument as he can to present to Max
      Morrison and Max' superiors to convince the company to change
      its dumping policy.

    3. Similar to 2, but to take his arguments outside of the
      company he is working for; possibilities include appropriate
      municipal agencies, federal regulatory agencies or the news

    4. Refuse to do as he is told, citing his personal
      convictions. He can then hope to be reassigned, or more
      likely, he can prepare to resign or be fired.

    On option 1, L. Bryan must be aware of what laws he may be
    violating if he decides to follow Max's orders. He must be
    prepared to personally deal with the consequences of those laws
    (fine and/or imprisonment) if he is personally indicted for the
    felony of toxic waste dumping under the terms of the U.S.
    "Resource Conservation and Recovery Act" (RCRA). Perhaps just
    as important, he must be conscious of what he personally would
    be doing to the environment. There is a wealth of literature
    (and NOVA series T.V. tapes) on such famous toxic waste cases
    as "Love Canal", "PCB Dumping" and "Asbestos Manufacturing"
    that could help L. Bryan better understand some of the
    potential consequences of his following Max' orders without

    Still in regard to option 1, as a budding engineer L. Bryan
    should be aware of the first Fundamental Canon in the NSPE Code
    of Ethics, "Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of
    the public in the performance of their professional duties."
    Maybe driving a forklift is not yet one of his professional
    duties, but it is a means for him to get to those duties. Also,
    the company he is working for is ostensibly involved in
    engineering related work (it's machine coolant he was asked to
    dump); and the strictures of the NSPE code of ethics apply
    equally to companies as to individuals. A company can violate
    one of the code items only through the actions of its
    employers. So, in aiming its code of ethics at individuals, the
    NSPE is clearly also enjoining companies to follow those same
    guidelines. There is not and cannot be separate codes for
    individuals and companies to follow.

    Option 2 will take a great deal of effort on Bryan's part.
    He must feel strongly about the issues involved to even
    contemplate embarking on this course of action. He will need to
    gather information on the toxicity of the specific chemicals he
    is dumping and what medical evidence is available about the
    effects of that toxic waste on the public. This is most
    effective if put in numerical terms such as the probability of
    whatever serious consequence is possible per unit level of
    exposure (for example, probability of the number of serious
    illnesses per 100,000 people exposed to one part per million in
    their drinking water). Next he will need to gather information
    on current applicable laws, and particularly what fines and
    penalties are at risk. Finally, he will need to present the
    cost of alternatives available to Max's company other than just
    outright dumping. That's a lot of work, but if L. Bryan is
    really disturbed about the situation and still wants to keep
    his summer job, he may have no other alternative to spending
    some significant research time in the local library.

    If L. Bryan does opt to present this kind of a case he must
    do it with great tact and diplomacy. He must convince Max that
    seriously considering alternatives to dumping may be in Max's
    and the company's best interests. He must somehow convince Max
    to be his ally in trying to sell the cost of the alternatives
    to dumping to Max's superiors in the company. The appearance of
    an end-run by L. Bryan around Max to Max's superiors should be
    avoided at all costs. Michael Davis has written some pragmatic
    and effective advice on this subject in his paper "Avoiding the
    Tragedy of Whistle Blowing".(1)

    That brings us to option 3, which is only different from the
    previous one in that L. Bryan would now be working outside of
    the company he is employed by (i.e., going public). There are
    those that make the case that this course of action only makes
    sense after one has resigned from the company, in other words
    after there is no longer anything personal (job and income) at
    stake. This may be a moot point since once he goes public, it
    is highly likely that L. Bryan will no longer be employed by
    his company. In any event there is a fairly extensive
    literature(2) on whistle blowing, when it is permissible, when
    it is obligatory, and how one may best be protected against the
    consequences of whistle blowing.

    Option 4 is self-explanatory and needs no further discussion
    other than to note that it may be personally gratifying but
    does little to alleviate the basic situation.

  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago

    L. Bryan might easily convince himself that it is not his
    responsibility to subject himself to the possibility of getting
    fired for disobeying the directive he has been given. After
    all, he is only a summer employee who needs the job to pay his
    way through college. He is not yet a member of the engineering
    profession and therefore has no obligation to "hold paramount
    the safety, health, and welfare of the public." The
    responsibility for whatever environmental damage or violations
    of environmental regulations would result from dumping the
    coolant down the drain is Max's and possibly Max's superiors.
    Of course, Max's arguments for dumping the coolant are very
    uncompelling, and there is little doubt about the meaning of
    Max's thinly veiled threats against Bryan. Furthermore, Max is
    probably right that Bryan's going ahead and dumping the coolant
    on this one occasion, and perhaps on the few occasions on which
    he will be called on to perform similar acts during his
    temporary employment, will have no discernible effects on the
    environment. Why then should he risk antagonizing Max further
    by continuing to resist Max's directive and quite possibly
    losing his job as a result? More-over, even if he were to
    refuse to dump the coolant, there is little reason to doubt
    that task would simply be assigned to someone else who has
    fewer qualms about doing what he/she is told.

    However, there are good reasons for L. Bryan not to carry
    out Max's directive. L. Bryan should consider not just the
    consequences of his actions on the one or few occasions on
    which he would be called on to dump toxic substances into
    drains but rather the consequences of the practice of similar
    persons in similar situations performing similar actions. And
    the latter consequences are significant and can be expected to
    have significant negative effects on the safety, health, and
    welfare of the public. If no one refused to participate in such
    a practice, then it is difficult to see how the practice itself
    would ever be stopped. And if someone should at some point
    refuse to participate, then why shouldn't L. Bryan do so under
    the present circumstances? Of course, there may be little hope
    or expectation that Bryan's sacrificing his summer job and
    jeopardizing his career plans would catch on and start a ground
    swell of workers' refusing assignments that endanger or harm
    the environment. But this is not the point. We would not say
    that one has no duty to vote in an election if he/she is
    reasonably certain that his/her vote would not affect the
    outcome of the election. The appropriate question is "What if
    everyone in your situation did what you are contemplating
    doing?" This is also the question that L. Bryan should ask
    himself in deciding what to do in the situation in which he
    finds himself.

    Given what is at stake for Bryan, we should not blame him if
    he decides not to be a hero, and he deserves praise if he
    chooses the heroic course. But questions of praise and blame
    are not really the crucial issues for the decision-maker. L.
    Bryan has the best reasons for doing what would be best to do
    in the situation. And that means that he should respectfully
    but firmly refuse to carry out Max's directive.

  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago

    L. Bryan is in a difficult situation. He seems to believe
    that complying with Max's order is both illegal and wrong. Yet
    he has little if any power in the company and is in danger of
    losing a valuable job if he disobeys. Furthermore, he is faced
    with the necessity of making an immediate decision. He might
    decide that he just does not want to do something that he
    considers wrong and that he has already earned as much as most
    students earn in a summer. If need be, he can take out a
    student loan. He might also believe that his example of
    refusing to dump the coolant could have an effect on company

    On the other hand, he might decide to dump the coolant down
    the drain. He might argue that one more dumping will not make
    that much difference, and it will give him a little more time
    to make a decision. He might also believe that staying on will
    have more effect on company policy than merely quitting or
    being summarily fired. This is a factual issue, having to do
    with the likely consequences of various courses of action.

    There are other factual considerations as well. Is Max's
    claim that the toxins will settle to the bottom correct? L.
    Bryan might be able to go to the local library and find the
    answer to this question. Then there is the question of his
    chances of changing Max's mind. Max would appear to be the kind
    of person whose mind is not easily changed. Does L. Bryan know
    anyone else in the company who might listen to his side of the

    Suppose L. Bryan discovers that Max's theory about how to
    reduce the toxic effect has no validity at all. He also
    confirms his suspicion that repeated dumping of the toxins into
    the drain is not only illegal, but a considerable source of
    environmental pollution and a potential health hazard. Finally,
    he decides that there is no possibility of changing Max's mind.
    This is the way Max has done things for years, and he is not
    about to change. The only way Max will change is to receive an
    order to do so from his superior.

    At this point L. Bryan should spend some time attempting to
    imagine as many possibilities and scenarios as he can. He wants
    to do something that will not only preserve his personal
    integrity and protect the environment, but also preserve his
    job. It may not be possible to do both, but he should at least
    try. If the company is large enough to have an "ethics hotline"
    or an ombudsman or an officer in charge of corporate
    responsibility, he should certainly make use of the
    opportunities that these resources afford. If not, he should
    lay his case before Max's superior or the personnel

    L. Bryan should think long and hard about how he can
    approach Max's superior in a non-confrontational way. One
    possibility is to say that he (Bryan) has a problem with
    dumping the toxic waste into the drain. This approach avoids
    pointing an accusatory finger at Max or other employees. He
    might then ask for advice on how he can handle his problem. He
    might combine this approach with an expression for the possible
    legal difficulties that the company might face. If he can do
    so, L. Bryan should also approach his superior with some
    specific plan in mind. He should not only point out a problem,
    but offer a possible solution.

    If this is done in a way that is both sincere and
    non-confrontational and if L. Bryan manages to find a receptive
    person, he has a good chance of both protecting the environment
    and protecting his job. If not, he may have to face an
    unpleasant choice. However, he should try to avoid such choices
    wherever possible. "Preventative ethics" tries to eliminate the
    need for making tragic choices.

    It is important to see that this attempt to avoid tragic
    choices is not being less ethically responsible, but more
    ethically responsible. This is because such an approach would
    satisfy more moral demands. If he is successful, L. Bryan would
    not only have protected the environment by means of a change in
    company policy, but he would also have satisfied a legitimate
    moral obligation to himself by saving his job.

  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago

    L. Bryan Springer is ordered to dump a drum of coolant in a
    way that seems to him to be both illegal and harmful to the
    environment. He 'ponders his options.' What are they? He has at
    least ten. He could comply and (1) keep quiet. He could comply,
    but report Max's illegal orders, either (2) within or (3)
    outside of the company. Or, (4) he could refuse, quit, and keep
    quiet; or refuse, quit, and report Max either (5) within or (6)
    outside of the company. Or, he could refuse and wait and see if
    Max fires him. If Max does, L. Bryan could (7) leave the
    company quietly and get another job; or (8) threaten Max with
    reporting him in the hope that Max will not fire him after all;
    or, report Max after being fired, again either (9/10) within or
    outside of the company.

    Should L. Bryan identify and analyze these options and try
    to figure out which is the best? One might wonder whether
    Bryan's position justifies his making a moral and intellectual
    crisis of this incident. One view would be that morality is
    'situation independent'-- that every illegality or immorality
    must be confronted, no matter who you are or what your relation
    is to the wrongdoer. On this view, all that triggers the moral
    necessity to act is, knowledge of the wrongful act. Given that
    you are required to do something, it follows that you ought to
    carefully consider your options and try to determine which is
    the morally best. On the other hand, perhaps it is relevant
    that L. Bryan holds merely a summer job as a forklift operator,
    presumably low-level, though well-paid, unskilled labor. He has
    no personal, professional or financial connection to the
    company, which to him is merely a meal-ticket back to college.
    Is it his responsibility to see that this company's wrongful
    actions be corrected? In personal relations, there is a
    principle of minding one's own business: sometimes it is best
    to overlook what people do, even things you find distasteful or
    even shocking, just because it is not up to you to interfere.
    Might not such a principle apply to certain employees? On this
    view, more than knowledge of the wrong is necessary to justify
    some reaction to that wrong. It is hard to say exactly what
    that 'more' might be, but following the analogy of personal
    relations, perhaps one ought to have a sufficiently strong or
    close connection with the wrongdoer.

    One reason for the 'mind your own business' principle is
    that one thing leads to another. If you do interfere in
    something you find unpalatable, you may find yourself drawn
    more deeply into a situation than you anticipated or are
    prepared to handle. Therefore unless you're already involved
    through your relationship with the parties, you should stay
    out. In this case, refusing Max's order might not only get L.
    Bryan fired, but would put him in the position of having a
    second and a third decision to make--whether to fight to retain
    the job, and whether to report Max within the company or to an
    enforcement agency. Refusing to dump the coolant and then just
    walking away from the bad situation (knowing that Max will just
    hire someone else who's probably going to be more compliant)
    might not seem like an ideal, or even an acceptable, solution.
    L. Bryan is not an engineer, not even a graduate student, but
    only a college student who has (presumably) neither the
    knowledge nor other resources necessary to make a long-term
    fight out of this violation. So perhaps L. Bryan might be
    forgiven if he were to take Max's advice and do what he's

    Yet in the present case, L. Bryan does not merely find out
    about the illegal dumping; he is being ordered to perform it
    himself. This makes it more difficult--but not out of the
    question--to claim that it is not any of his business. L. Bryan
    evidently does not share Max's cynicism about environmental
    regulations, and his words to Max seem to indicate that he has
    strong convictions against violating the regulations and
    possibly harming the environment. So he must examine his
    conscience and see how strong these feelings really are. If
    they are as strong as his words seem to indicate, then it is
    clear that he has little choice but to refuse Max's order and
    see what Max does about it. He can hardly justify the claim
    that he's only following orders and that it isn't important
    enough to worry about, when on his own principles dumping
    toxins is important enough to worry about.

    So L. Bryan has a lot to think about. Before he refuses
    Max's order, he might consider some of his options, for
    example, whether, should Max fire him, he wants to fight to
    keep the job, perhaps by threatening Max to report him to
    somebody, if he is willing and able to do that. But if he
    chooses to take this route, he has to be sure he's going to
    follow up. Of course he also has to consider what he'll do if
    Max backs off. Should he report Max's practice anyway? Suppose
    Max tells L. Bryan he doesn't have to dump the coolant and then
    assigns him to some other job. Should L. Bryan assume that the
    illegal dumping is going on as before (they've been doing it
    for years after all, long before L. Bryan came around); and if
    so, then what does he do? He might feel obliged to snoop around
    and find out, with a view to reporting Max anyway. After all,
    if he stops at simply getting himself out from under the order
    to do the dumping himself, all the while suspecting that the
    illegal practice is continuing, he might be guilty of 'clean
    hands'--i.e., the position that it's okay if dirty things go on
    as long as I don't have to do them. So the situation is more
    complicated than college-student L. Bryan is likely to imagine
    at first blush, when in the rush of indignation he challenges
    Max by contradicting his claim that "nothing's happened" so

    Considering the open-ended commitment L. Bryan might find
    himself taking on if he decides to make an issue of this
    incident, I think there is room for the conclusion that given
    his limited relationship to the company, he might honorably
    decide that there is no real reason to get involved with this
    problem. The whole thing can be regarded as a marvelous
    learning opportunity.

Cite this page: "Disposing of Toxic Waste" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/15/1992 OEC Accessed: Friday, July 12, 2019 <>