The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have raised concerns about the threat of terrorism to other vital facilities around the country. No resource is more important than a safe and plentiful supply of drinking water. As a result, drinking water facilities could be an attractive target.
Water systems and the people who operate them are aware of this and are guarding our drinking water from a variety of threats, including people with malicious intent. While water providers have been proceeding with a heightened sense of security and vigilance since September 11, this is not the beginningbut rather a continuationof long-time efforts to keep their facilities and the water safe from vandalism, sabotage, and terrorism.
- What are systems doing to protect their water and facilities?
- What are the threats?
- What are the chances of water being intentionally contaminated?
In addition to the security measures water providers are taking, the American Water Works Association is conducting workshops for utilities on vulnerability assessments and counterterrorism and is issuing an Emergency Planning Manual to its members.
Among the things water providers are doing to protect their systems and the water they serve to the public are making sure that all facilities are locked and secure; installing motion sensors and video cameras to monitor, detect, and record events; getting local law enforcement officials to become familiar with their facilities; and establishing a procedure with local law enforcement for reporting and responding to threats; and setting up a system for detection, response, and notification issues with local public health officials.
Public water systems must guard against:
- Physical destruction of treatment, storage, and distribution facilities;
- Contamination of the water supply; and
- Hacking of the computer system.
Physical damage could cause a loss of water flow and pressure, which would not only cause problems for water customers, it would hinder firefighting efforts. Many experts believe that physical destruction is more likely than a contamination event.
The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency believes the threat of contamination through terrorist activities is small.
For a contaminant to be effective, it must be tasteless, odorless, and colorless. While it is easy to contaminate a glass of water and camouflage the taste, it is much more difficult to contaminate an entire system due to the sheer size. A contaminant would have to also be used in large quantities since it would quickly dilute in the water. In addition, treatment processes already in place at most water utilities will deactivate many contaminants.
Even though the likelihood of such an event is small, even a small contamination situation as a result of terrorism will undermine public confidence in the safety of public water systems. This confidence is critical and is one more reason that the superintendents and operators of public water systems must remain on guard at all times.
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