Report: Engineering Society Needs Ethics Policy

Mon November 03, 2008 - National Edition

NEW ORLEANS (AP) A task force is calling on the American Society of Civil Engineers to come up with an ethics policy after critics raised questions about the group’s probes of the World Trade Center collapse and the failure of New Orleans levees during Hurricane Katrina.

Critics said the probes, commissioned and funded by federal agencies, were more about covering up human and agency misdeeds than determining what went wrong with the failed structures.

In September, the society’s Task Force on Engineering Reviews said Reston, Va.-based ASCE should draw up an ethics policy to eliminate questions of possible conflicts of interest.

The panel started work after Raymond Seed, a levee expert with the University of California-Berkeley, sent a 42-page letter to ASCE in October 2007 accusing it of colluding with the Army Corps of Engineers to cover up engineering flaws found after Katrina struck in August 2005. Seed was on an independent levee investigation team funded by the National Science Foundation.

Seed’s team said corps and ASCE reports placed too much blame on the power of Katrina and did not spend enough time studying design flaws. The independent team also complained that the Army Corps and ASCE team obstructed access to data and tried to keep them away from the site of one of the major levee failures.

The letter also revived accusations that ASCE’s examination of the World Trade Center collapse was flawed. Critics have charged the group wrongly concluded the skyscrapers could not have been designed to withstand aircraft strikes.

In both cases, the society’s findings were called into question in large part because ASCE got money from government agencies. The society received a $1.1 million grant from the Army Corps to study levee failures and the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid the group approximately $257,000 to investigate the World Trade Center collapse.

The panel did not attach blame or look at the accusations about details in the engineering studies, but rather concentrated on ASCE policies and procedures, where it found glaring holes. Most significantly, it faulted ASCE for not having a conflict-of-interest policy.

Still, the panel said ASCE remains the “single best organization to carry out this type of work for our nation.”

The task force said ASCE, which is funded by member dues, should pay for engineering investigations of less than $1 million. The panel said the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the federal agency that promotes technology and sets standards, should be the conduit for funding and oversight for more expensive projects.

ASCE is considering the panel’s recommendations and doing an internal review.

The society’s president, David Mongan, praised the panel’s “thorough and frank analysis and recommendations” and said it will help the group improve its procedures.

The 140,000-member ASCE sets engineering standards and codes and publishes technical books and a glossy magazine. Members testify regularly before Congress and the society issues a well-known report card on U.S. infrastructure.

For the engineers who spoke out against the ASCE, the report was a vindication, but the spat is far from over. An ASCE committee on professional conduct is looking into specific allegations of wrongdoing.

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