Overhearing a conversation concerning a potentially immoral and illegal act concerning public safety, one is put into an awkward situation of making hard choices directly affecting safety and livelihood of many individuals. It is of utmost importance to consider both the immediate and long term ramifications of any action you may take in such a precarious situation. In the situation of overhearing the Vice President of Production ask the environmental consultant advice on how to dump toxic waste into a holding pond, it becomes apparent there are both civil and criminal issues to consider. Reaching the appropriate decision of what action to take is not an easy decision.
Environmental ethics relies heavily on the business's commitment to minimizing environmental harm. As the assistant to the Vice President (VP) you have an ethical obligation to your boss, the company, and the community. As an employee, you must decide how to handle the information you overhear the Vice President discussing with the companies environmental consultant.
Breaches in ethics regarding the conversation you overhear vary in severity. The first matter to consider would be whether or not what you overhear the VP and consultant discuss is fact or hearsay. The conversation between the Vice President and consultant regarding dumping into the holding pond has the potential to cause the environment harm. There are basically two ways to handle the conversation overheard.
As an employee you must decide whether to go internally with the information you overheard. Should you go to the President of the company? You risk the fact that the President may be fully aware of the conversation between the Vice President and the consultant. If you feel this may be the case, you should consider whistleblowing.
Going straight to the appropriate state or federal agency with the information you have heard. As an employee you could face the legal ramifications if your company violates any State or Federal Acts to protect the environment. As a whistleblower you would most likely be protected from civil liability should the company perform an illegal activity.
The breach in ethics would be whether or not to covey the information internally or externally. If the information is not released internally to the President the company could suffer serious consequences. Likewise, if the information is not released to a State or Federal agency, then you as well as the company will be legally penalized in a civil suit if the company performs any illegal action.
Strict guidelines have been established for handling of substances identified as toxic under the National Environmental Policy Act and state environmental acts. These acts have clearly defined policy on production, handling, transport, and disposal of such substances. Unauthorized disposal of identified substances by a senior corporate employee would most likely be classified as knowingly violating these acts and such actions carry defined criminal penalties. Any employee having knowledge of the act takes the risk of criminal prosecution. Under laws such as the Whistleblower's Protection Act (Title 26 MRSA, Chapter 7, Subchapter V-B), there is protection for whistleblowers that come forth to disclose information concerning such illegal activities, however, most of these laws require bringing the problem to the attention of your employer first (U.S. Department of Labor, 2004).
In 1972 the Clean Water Act (CWA) established means of enforcement for federal and state environmental agencies to protect natural water resources. Knowing violations of the act can result in fines up to $50,000 per day and imprisonment. The defense might be made that the pond is not considered "navigable waters" as defined under the CWA; however, the federal courts have extended a very broad definition to this term. In the case of United States v. Hartsell, the defendants were sentenced to 51 months of imprisonment in addition to fines...
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