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July 23, 2013
New checklists on drinking water security

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the EPA, state drinking water administrators, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have issued many warnings to water system managers about how easy it would be for criminals to contaminate a local source of drinking water.  The agencies have supplemented these warnings with advisories and guidance documents intended to raise the awareness of systems managers, particularly those in charge of small and very small systems, about assessing the vulnerability of their systems and improving security where needed. 

The latest document prepared by the EPA and the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) is a set of excellent “all-hazards” checklists covering general preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery applicable to both criminal attack and natural disasters affecting water systems.  The checklists are intended for state drinking water programs supporting the needs of water systems during crises, but they can also be useful to systems managers seeking to understand the levels of crisis preparedness and response the EPA and the state expect from them. 

The document also provides incident-specific response checklists that address natural disasters, security (intentional/accidental) incidents, cyber security incidents, and chemical spills. 

Threats abound

Security agencies have reported that terrorists have issued threats to poison public drinking water, and lists of a small number of unsuccessful attempts, including cyber terrorism, have appeared on the Internet.  But the lack of actual (or reported) harm does not mitigate the danger.  For example, in October 2011, the DHS published information about using back pressure and backflow to contaminate public drinking water sources.  In such cases, pressure that exceeds the distribution pressure can be applied at a fire hydrant or in a commercial building or even a home to send toxic substances back into the water system. 

“Minimal technical expertise or equipment is needed to introduce contaminants into the water system, and general information on back-pressure processes is available to the public,” says the DHS.

The DHS release lists indicators of tampering, including a vehicle other than a fire truck hooked up to a fire hydrant or other point that accesses water pipes.

State and local roles

State drinking water programs (DWPs) have statutory authority and primary enforcement responsibilities to implement and oversee some emergency management efforts.  Federal regulations and U.S. laws that directly involve primacy agencies to act or assist during an emergency include EPA’s Water Programs National Primary Drinking Water Regulations covering public notification of drinking water violations and primary enforcement responsibility, as well as U.S. code covering state primary enforcement responsibility and tampering with public water systems. 

However, state responsibility and authority regarding drinking water should not lead local systems to conclude that they have no or minimal responsibility to provide protection for their water distribution and storage systems and have up-to-date response plans in place should an incident occur.

Click here for DHS’s flyer on back-pressure contamination.

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