The Whistle-Blowers Who Exposed Water Quality Problems and Defective Ship Designs

These engineers’ courage led to reforms in Flint and the U.S. Coast Guard

17 May 2017

Scandals surrounding water contamination in Flint, Mich., and defective U.S. Coast Guard ships could have been prevented if only the organizations responsible would have listened to the engineers who reported problems they uncovered.

In this month’s special report, The Institute showcases what IEEE is doing to help educate engineers about the ethical and societal implications of their work. This post pays tribute to two brave engineers who put their ethical concerns and professional duties first, even though they knew their actions might come at a cost. (And for one of them, they did.) Both received an IEEE Carl Barus Award for Outstanding Service in the Public Interest, given by the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology.

  • DIRTY WATER

    IEEE Member Marc Edwards has been exposing extreme levels of lead contamination in drinking water for years—first in Washington, D.C., and more recently in Flint. Time magazine named Edwards, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech, one of its 100 most influential people of 2016. He and a team of 17 Virginia Tech students and researchers conducted a comprehensive city-wide sampling of drinking water used in more than 270 homes. They found that Flint’s water had serious lead contamination as well as problems with bacteria including Legionella.

    Edwards in 2003 had become a nationally renowned expert on municipal water quality after he got involved in a Washington crisis. He found corrosion in the city’s water system had caused lead to seep into tap water, exposing people to high levels. He also discovered that the traditional method federal agencies used to test for lead in water was lacking.

    The Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially denied his findings. But his claims were vindicated in 2010 when a congressional investigation proved that the CDC report he criticized contained misleading information. In recognition of his efforts, he received the Barus Award in 2013. In accepting the award, Edwards noted that because he was a tenured professor, he was fortunate not to have lost his job and experienced financial hardship, like so many other whistle-blowers.

    Edwards testified twice last year before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the Flint water crisis. He now serves on the Michigan governor’s Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee, which seeks long-term solutions to the city’s woes.

  • DEFECTIVE SHIP DESIGNS

    Michael DeKort was a lead systems engineer at Lockheed Martin in 2003 working on the Deepwater project to modernize U.S. Coast Guard equipment. It involved transforming boats into larger, more versatile cutters with rebuilt hulls, building new communications and surveillance gear, and constructing an extension to make room for a small boat-launch ramp. The Coast Guard hired military contractors Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to manage the project as well as build and deliver the equipment. The project was fraught with problems.

    A 2006 article in The New York Times detailed the issues and quoted DeKort. He said he told his supervisors that classified communications equipment was not being properly shielded to protect messages from eavesdropping, and that cameras intended to provide 360-degree surveillance had large blind spots. Other equipment was not waterproof. The Coast Guard ignored repeated warnings from its engineers that the boats and ships were poorly designed and perhaps unsafe.

    The problems increased the costs of the fleet-building program to nearly US $24 billion, from $17 billion, and delayed the arrival of new ships and aircraft.

    DeKort repeatedly warned his supervisors but was rebuffed. He was laid off from Lockheed in 2006, but that didn’t stop him from raising an alarm. He listed his concerns in a YouTube video, which lead to coverage by 60 Minutes and other TV news broadcasts as well as major newspapers. The media coverage spurred investigations by the Homeland Security Department and congressional hearings.

    The House of Representatives approved a bill in 2007 that made far-reaching changes in the Coast Guard’s Deepwater program, removing Northrup Grumman and Lockheed Martin from the project, installing a civilian chief acquisitions officer, and imposing a series of deadlines, reports, and oversight committees for its programs. The Coast Guard also made sweeping management changes.

    For his efforts, DeKort received the Barus Award in 2008. Elijah Cummings, then chair of the House transportation and infrastructure committee’s subcommittee on the Coast Guard and maritime transportation, spoke at the awards ceremony. According to the Barus Award website, Cummings said, “Mr. DeKort’s commitment to excellence came at a cost to him personally, and yet it was a cost that he was willing to bear to do what he believed was right. The central lesson of Mr. DeKort’s example is that one person committed to excellence and to demanding that commitment of those around him can make a difference.”

    In 2006 DeKort sued Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman; in 2010 he settled with Lockheed Martin for an unspecified sum.

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