It’s been almost a year since terrorists attacked the United States. But the repercussions of that morning continue to ripple across the country. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Murray looks at how security concerns are impacting the country’s 50,000 small drinking water systems. These utilities now find themselves scrambling for money, security training and equipment to keep their facilities and water supplies safe:
It’s been almost a year since terrorists attacked the United States. But the repercussions of that morning continue to ripple across the country. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Murray looks at how security concerns are impacting the country’s 50,000 small drinking water systems. These utilities now find themselves scrambling
for money, security training and equipment to keep their facilities and
water supplies safe:
The federal government started thinking seriously about domestic
security well before last September. Four years ago, the Clinton
administration examined the country’s infrastructure. And the results were
sobering. Water and wastewater systems were found to be vulnerable to
physical damage, computer hacking, chemical spills and radiological
Recent CIA reports place large metropolitan water systems on alert as
potential targets for terrorist attacks. But some small system operators
think their plants are vulnerable, too.
(sound of water plant)
“I feel that they could make an example out of a small system that says,
‘Look here, we could do that to a small one. We could do it to a larger
Barry Clemmer has run public water systems in western Pennsylvania for the
past 25 years. Before September 11th, he says his main concern was
vandalism – still the most likely scenario for a security breach. He walks
the fenced perimeter of his facility and points out new security devices.
“We have a camera on the side of one of our buildings that focuses
on the entrance gate. We monitor 24 hours a day. It’s hard to keep someone
out but it’s a deterrent and might slow them down from getting in.”
(sound of key in lock)
Although the front of the plant is now more secure, Clemmer continues
to worry about the intake system. That’s where raw river water is piped
into the treatment plant.
Clemmer: “Excuse me, I’ll open the gate.”
The river flows about 30 feet below the gated back of the facility. Clemmer walks down a wooden stairway to the unguarded riverbank. He shakes his head and says that terrorists could attack his plant from here.
“They could come up the river on a boat and hop out and go right
there and drop something in. It’d only take five minutes and our water
could be contaminated.”
Plans are in the works to secure the area where raw water is
taken into the plant. But Clemmer says that he still needs a security camera to
keep a close eye on the river. That will require additional grant dollars
because there isn’t money in the budget for security equipment and the
local community says it can’t afford the extra expense.
John Mori is director of the National Environmental Services Center, a federally funded technical assistance group. He says budget constraints are nothing new to small communities. It’s just that financial limitations have taken on an added dimension in this past year.
“Small systems historically have never gotten a share… an appropriate
share of federal dollars under the various loan programs. The point is there
are hundreds of thousands of Americans in small communities, medium size
communities and they need equal assurance that their water is safe and protected.”
Unlike metropolitan areas, Mori says smaller communities just don’t
have a big pool of qualified water personnel. So already overburdened
operators must now take on the responsibility of keeping their facilities
safe from terrorism.
“These are hardworking men and women who may have two or three or four
jobs in a community trying to do everything at once and make sure their
customers get good, safe water. So I think they’re determined about this. I
just think they need some help.”
Since September 11th, most help – in the form of new federal dollars
and security training – has gone to large water utilities. Metropolitan
water plants serve about 80 percent of the U.S. population. But Andy
Bielanski, with EPA’s newly formed Water Protection Task Force, says that the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is moving slowly but deliberately to also
help small water systems.
“What we’re doing is taking input and feedback from states, other
technical assistance organizations and agencies, on how best to approach
this problem. And we’ve been taking this all into consideration in trying
to provide security assistance to small systems.”
EPA and other agencies now face the daunting task of reaching more than
50,000 small water utilities. These utilities vary in size, customer base
and technical sophistication.
This past May, Congress mandated water utilities with more than 3,300
customers to conduct vulnerability assessments. Operators must then create
emergency response plans to address not only terrorism but vandalism or
natural disasters. Before September 11th, many small systems didn’t have
workable emergency plans in place.
(sound of conference)
At a pilot seminar for small system security, Tom Sherman with Michigan’s
Rural Community Assistance Program says Michigan’s systems are just like
many other small water utilities: they’re beginning from scratch.
“It’s kind of like ground zero. We’re just starting out. It’s something we knew we
had to address and you just need the input to know you’re going in the right direction.”
To make sure that small water operations are heading in the right direction, the federal government is trying to improve its outreach to small and medium size communities. Some funds have already been distributed to help these communities evaluate the safety of their water systems and upgrade their security. More than $70 million additional dollars await the approval of Congress and the President.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Ann Murray.