GeoEthics > Case Studies Collection > Case of GMOs in Environmental Cleanup

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This page first made public: May 27, 2014

Case of GMOs in Environmental Cleanup

Daniel Vallero, Duke University


This case represents various agendas, hidden and otherwise, that can come into play during environmental remediation.


Teachers at a summer institute, professional continuing education, undergraduate and graduate science and engineering majors.

Class size: 15 to 30 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
Some understanding of chemistry and geology, but fairly well self-explanatory.

How the activity is situated in the course
This can be a stand-alone session, but probably best to use it in sequence.


Content/concepts goals for this activity
Application of physical and biological sciences within a policy and public framework.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Synthetic and analytical reasoning.

Other skills goals for this activity
Comfort with ambiguity, working in groups.

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

A solution to a discrete problem can lead to unintended and derivative problems. An comprehensive approach must consider chaos, not only from a scientific perspective, but from an ethical perspective. That is, seemingly small decisions can lead to very large, unintended consequences.

Description and Teaching Materials

Role-playing. Case Instructions Environmental Biotech (Acrobat (PDF) 866kB May27 14)

Case Study Scenario

The City of L'Acide is located on the Gulf Coast of the U.S. with a population of 20,000. The main industry is the assembly of semiconductors (employment = 1523). The second largest industry, a battery manufacturer, closed last year, with an attendant layoff of 800 people. The City has two elementary schools and one middle school. Most high school students attend Bezique High School, which is 8 miles away.

The City has contracted with the engineering firm, Benebaction, Inc., to remediate a 3 hectare hazardous waste site from an old firing range that was deeded to the City by the military shortly after the Korean War. Part of the deed transfer included the stipulation that the transfer was "as is." Bezique Creek runs through town and is about 200 m downstream from the site. The average water table depth is 3 m. In the 1990's, a local college conducted soil and water sampling and found "traces" of trinitrotoluene (TNT).

The site is a brownfield, i.e. the City has already retained an architectural firm to design a combined residential and commercial center, including an elementary school, on the site. Benebaction has been asked to study the hazardous compounds found in the soil and ground water at the site and find the best way to render them nontoxic.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Instructions for Facilitator

This case is intended for use in a class discussion with a total of 4 teams. One of each of the following four scenarios should be given to each team, who will not know the others' hidden agendas. Ideally each handout should be printed on a separate color paper. Students can then divide into teams based on the color of their handout. Each team should also be given a copy of the L'Acide Cleanup Recommendation Report. Do not share the Follow Up Questions until after each group reveals their hidden agendas.

Follow Up Questions
  1. How can the engineer make the right decision in light of the various agendas in this case?
  2. Is this a realistic case in terms of persistence in pushing for a single solution to a problem? If not, why not?
  3. What can be done to be more open-minded while adhering to the most scientifically sound remediation approach?
  4. Extra Credit (Environmental Engineering): Sometimes engineers and scientists are accused of looking for solutions to problems in a manner analogous to the person who loses his keys in the dark and only looks for them under the street light. Could that be going on here? For example, is there a linkage between the battery plant closing and potential pollution? If so, the pollutants would be very different from those being remediated here (e.g. heavy metals, low pH, etc.)? What is the responsibility of the engineer to consider possible problems other than those circumscribed by the client (e.g. asking about lead, sulfuric acid and other contaminants commonly found at abandoned battery facilities?
  5. If Question 4 is true, how can an engineer balance specialization and a systematic viewpoint, i.e. being sufficiently competent in one's field and taking a comprehensive view?
Find the report and 4 different hidden agendas (geotechnical engineering consultant, concerned citizen, environmental advocate and elected official) at the NAE website:


Discussion and reflective writing following the in-class project. The following week, the class should again discuss the case, based on this additional research.

References and Resources

"The Environmental Implications of Biotechnology - PPT slides"Online Ethics Center for Engineering4/13/2010National Academy of EngineeringAccessed: Tuesday, May 27, 2014
"The Environmental Implications of Biotechnology - Pdf"Online Ethics Center for Engineering4/13/2010National Academy of EngineeringAccessed: Tuesday, May 27, 2014