Gilbane Gold
Staff posted on October 24, 2006 |
Gilbane Gold

Gilbane Gold: A Video Case Study
Produced By and Used With Permission of:
The National Institute for Engineering Ethics,
National Society of Professional Engineers

The video case study entitled "Gilbane Gold" was produced by the National Society of Professional Engineers and the National Institute for Engineering Ethics. The case study used in the video is completely fictional. Any resemblance in the video to the actual names of companies, geographic locations or individuals is completely unintentional.

Additional Case Materials Provided and Prepared In The Departments of Philosophy and Mechanical Engineering, Texas A&M University Under NSF Grant Number DIR-9012252

Gilbane Gold

Introduction to the Case
This case was originally prepared by the National Institute for Engineering Ethics of the National Society of Professional Engineers. It is a fictional but highly plausible case, suggested by actual situations. Students will find it easy to identify with the junior environmental engineer, David Jackson, who is caught between his desire to be a good employee and his sense of obligation as an engineer to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

Although the primary ethical issue raised in the case is whistleblowing, secondary ethical issues include the obligations of engineers with respect to environmental issues, management problems having to do with honesty and trust between business and its host community, the issue of the fairness of a community towards local manufacturing plants, the problems raised for individuals and groups by the necessity for action in the face of inconclusive scientific evidence, and the relationship of law and morality.

The case takes place in the imaginary town of Gilbane. The sludge from the Gilbane sewage plant has been used for many years as a fertilizer and is sold under the name "Gilbane Gold." The revenue from the sale of Gilbane Gold enables the city to supplement its tax revenues, saving a family of four approximately $300/year in taxes. In order to protect this source of income, the town placed severe restrictions on the discharge of heavy metals into the sewage, so the sewage would be safe for use by farmers as fertilizer. The restrictions are ten times more stringent than federal regulations.

Before implementing these regulations, Gilbane had aggressively marketed itself as a city with a good business climate, offering tax abatements to industries that chose to move there. After several high-tech firms moved to the area, the more stringent regulations were enacted. Z CORP was one of the companies that moved to Gilbane. Its Gilbane plant manufactures computer components, but the plant's manufacturing process creates substantial quantities of toxic materials, primarily heavy metals. Z CORP monitors its waste discharge monthly.

Two facts about the regulations affect the resolution of the case. First, plants in Gilbane are responsible for supplying test data to the city. The data must be signed by an engineer, who attests to its accuracy. The law governing effluents is flawed, however, for it only regulates effluent discharge in terms of the amount of toxic material for a given volume of discharge, not in terms of the total quantity of contaminant. So a plant can always operate within Gilbane standards by simply increasing the volume of discharge.

Second, a newer and more sensitive (but also more expensive) test for heavy metals has been developed since the city enacted its standards. The newer test is not required by the city, and the city of Gilbane does not use it. Z CORP employees have access to the test, and it shows that the plant has apparently been slightly exceeding the allowable emissions on a number of occasions. This produces a problem for Z CORP. If it discloses the results of the new test, the city might take legal action against it. If it does not disclose the results, some of its own employees may believe it is exhibiting bad faith with the city.

The plant's junior environmental engineer, David Jackson, is a new employee. He has replaced a consultant who believes he was released because of his warnings about the discharge of toxic materials. David is concerned about Z CORP's heavy metals discharge, and his concern is further intensified when he learns that Z CORP has signed a contract that will result in a five-fold increase in the discharge of heavy metals. David finally decides to blow the whistle on the plant's discharge levels by talking to the local TV newscaster.

The Standpoints of the Judge and the Agent
In preparation for leading a class discussion, you will want to view the tape at least once, and preferably twice. Announce to the class that present-time scenes are in color and flashbacks are in black and white. Because this case is based on the video, there is no critical need for overheads or bibliographies, although having one overhead with the names and roles of the chief characters and another summarizing the key ethical issues in the case has been found helpful. These overheads are provided.

It is important to ask what one expects the student to learn from viewing and discussing Gilbane Gold. We believe the best answer to this question is that the student should develop some skills which would be useful in her own professional career. The primary skills we have in mind here are the abilities to (1) analyze moral issues and to (2) resolve them in creative and professionally responsible ways. In order to do this, the student should attempt to put herself in the position of David Jackson and to decide how she would handle the issues that David faces. That is, the student should take the standpoint of the principal agent in the case, not the position of a judge. This means the student should place herself in the situation and approach it from the standpoint of one who must make a decision, not take the standpoint of one who evaluates David's actions from the standpoint of a spectator. Taking an "internal" and present-tense standpoint, in other words, is more instructive than taking an "external" and "after-the-fact" perspective. While it may require more effort to analyze the issue and construct one's own solution than to simply evaluate David's actions, the former exercise is ultimately more challenging and more valuable for a young engineer's professional development.

The recommendation, then, is to focus on David Jackson, to encourage the student to put herself in David's place and decide what she would do if she were facing his situation. Of course the comparison of how one would handle the situation with the way David actually dealt with it may lead to an implicit judgment of David's action, but the principal aim of the discussion should be to prompt the student to come up with the plan of action that she herself would take.

We shall approach this case somewhat differently from the others, in that we shall make a more concerted effort to employ the concepts and modes of ethical analysis developed in the essays entitled "Moral Concepts and Theories" and "Basic Concepts and Methods in Ethics" which appear at the end of the cases in this report. While the analysis may be somewhat more formal and structured than the analysis that will emerge in the classroom discussion, it should assist you in leading the discussion. We shall begin with a discussion of some of the important factual issues in the case and then proceed to a discussion of the relevant conceptual and moral issues.


Gilbane Gold Overheads

1. Cast of Characters
2. Ethical Issues Of The Case


Cast Of Characters

Diane Collins
: Z CORP vice president in charge of the Gilbane plant. She reports to corporate headquarters, and is the sole representative of the plant who does so. She is reported to by,

Frank Seeders: In charge of the plant operations, an engineer.

Phil Port: Manager and Head of environmental affairs, not an engineer. He is reported to by,

David Jackson: The young engineer who is the nominal protagonist in the video. He is an engineer and PE responsible for signing plant effluent reports and keeping the plant in compliance with regulations.

Dan Martin: Z CORP. lawyer from the corporate office.


Tom Richards: Environmental engineering consultant who was fired by Z CORP. He has the new test which shows the company is discharging excessive toxic waste. He also encourages David to blow the whistle on Z CORP.

Lloyd Bremen: Former state commissioner of environmental protection, now retired and a farmer who uses Gilbane Gold on his ranch. Though he oversaw the regulations, he now is critical of the rules regarding the testing of effluent.

Dr. Winslow Massin: Professor emeritus, Hanover University, School of Engineering.

Maria Renato: TV Reporter who does the up-close piece on Z CORP.


Ethical Issues Of The Case

1. Does the presentation of the case by Maria Renato affect the decision made by David Jackson?

2. In what ways does the fact that David's boss is not an engineer affect David's actions?

3. Does Prof. Massin add any insight into what actions David should perform? That is, would you look to a former professor to help you deal with an ethical issue.

4. If you were David would you look to your professional society for advice on how to handle the situation?

5. The plant manager is presented with conflicting reports from her employees. How could David have presented his concerns more effectively to the plant manager?

6. Do you think Z CORP is "poisoning" the soil at present levels of discharge? What about a 500% increase?

7. Do you think David is deceiving the city if he does not reveal the results of the new test?
Regardless of hether he is deceiving the city, is failing to reveal the results of the new test justified?

8. Do you think Diane's actions are unfair to David?

9. Do you think the city is treating Z CORP unfairly? Should it bear some of the expense of complying with its strict effluent standards?

10. Do the actions of the ex-consultant Tom Richards seem in any way to have ulterior motives?

11. Does David have any other options that he did not consider?

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