U.S. water security tightens after FBI advisories

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U.S. water security tightens after FBI advisories Friday September 28, 2:23 PM EDT

By Paul Thomasch

NEW YORK, Sept 28 (Reuters) - U.S. water companies are ratcheting up security in the wake of the attacks on the United States -- from increasing patrols at reservoirsto shutting down roads -- after warnings from law enforcement officials that the nation's water supply could face sabotage.

At American Water Works Co. Inc. (AWK), one of the largest U.S. water utilities, water supplies are now subjected to more frequent and strenuous tests, while trucks entering its treatment plants in cities such as Pittsburgh and St. Louis must pass close inspections.

And that's just the beginning for an industry under more pressure than ever to protect drinking water from chemical or biological contamination. New barbed wire fences have been installed around reservoirs; padlocks guarding storage tanks have been changed; security patrols, even armed ones, have been working overtime; and in some spots, fishing has been banned.

While companies have put security "on a heightened alert as a general precaution" since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there haven't been any specific threats against water supplies, according to the American Water Works Association, a trade group with 57,000 members.

What's more, some experts said actually contaminating large amounts of water would be difficult, maybe close to impossible.

Because hazardous agents would be naturally diluted, "the amount of chemicals required just to affect one reservoir would be enormous," said Pam Krider, a spokeswoman for the Denver-based association.

Professor Rae Zimmerman, a director of the Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems at New York University, said that notion comes from an old engineering adage: the solution to pollution is dilution.

"The fact is that's true," she said. "But there are certain agents that a fraction of any quantity could have devastating effects, and you have to protect against those."


As concern about terrorism mounted after the attacks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued safety advisories for much of the country's infrastructure, including waterworks.

Utilities have been reluctant to discuss the measures they have taken since the attacks two weeks ago, and the amount of money spent to increase security is unclear, officials said.

However, executives at water companies said they have been in touch with federal and local law enforcement authorities. Emergency response programs and security measures, many of which have been in place for years, are now getting close review.

"We, like other water utilities, have been monitoring both the sources and the water traveling through a treatment plant," said Jim Harrison, a spokesman for American Water Works.

"You're running more tests than you used to, it's the only way you can really do it," he said. "You're out there spending a few extra bucks to monitor that you may not have spent before."

Already, the Environmental Protection Agency requires water companies and municipalities to conduct tests for a host of chemical or biological contaminants, including E. coli and legionella, a bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease.

"We have always inspected and tested our water daily. Besides the fact that we want to do that, it's a law that we have to," said Sandy Warren, director of corporate communications for Southwest Water Co. (SWWC)

Even so, Warren said the company is taking extra precautions. Technicians at the company have been given an updated list of possible contaminants, she said.

If something is detected, "each of our reservoirs is capable of being sealed off at any given moment," Warren said. "They have pumps and valves controlling water flowing in or out of the reservoir and they can be shut down at a moments notice."

Chemical and biological agents can also be more readily discovered than a decade ago, experts said, thanks to technology which can pick up contaminants which may have previously gone unnoticed.

Still, there is a chance water could be contaminated after it leaves reservoirs and water treatment facilities, where much of the testing is done. In some cases, companies and city governments have set up alarm systems or padlocked access doors at pipes moving water into residential and business areas.

Another of the many threats worrying experts and the public is that dams or water tanks could be attacked, shutting down water flow and causing flooding.

Zimmerman said companies and governments "have been prepared to combat pollution. This is along the same lines, but it's much more extreme."

"Extreme events are something people are not prepared. We're going to get prepared."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), September 28, 2001

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