EPA Administrator Christine Whitman recently announced the establishment of a water protection task force at the agency that will be charged with helping federal, state and local partners to expand their tools to safeguard the nation's drinking water supply from terrorist attack.
"While EPA already has a strong coordinated partnership program for protecting our drinking water, this task force will have specific duties to expand EPA's service to the community water systems," says Whitman. "The threat of public harm from an attack on our nation's water supply is small. Our goal here is to ensure that drinking water utilities in every community have access to the best scientific information and technical expertise they need and to know what immediate steps to take and to whom to turn to for help."
EPA already has in place a notification system to quickly share information among drinking water providers, the law enforcement community (local, state and federal) and emergency response officials. This system, developed though a public/private partnership with the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) and the FBI, alerts authorities and water system officials to threats, potential vulnerabilities and incidents. This type of notification went out as an FBI alert after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. EPA has given the AMWA a $600,000 grant to continue to improve this notification system with a secure web-based "virtual center."
In the unlikely event of an attack on a water system, a drinking water utility would activate its existing emergency response plan with state emergency officials. If needed, these plans provide for shutting down the system, notifying the public of any emergency steps they might need to take and providing alternative sources of water.
Water systems in this nation are generally self-contained. Unlike other utilities that are interconnected across large parts of the nation, individual water systems serve as a defined area. There are about 168,000 public water systems nationwide. Should an attack be suspected, EPA can dispatch expert emergency response personnel to the scene immediately. These experts are located in all of EPA's 10 regions and they have considerable experience working with local, state and federal emergency officials and are prepared to help with monitoring, cleanup and expert advice on containments.
The water protection task force will be charged with providing immediate guidance to water systems on improving security. And it will identify potential gaps in infrastructure protection and preparedness. Finally, it will consult with the utility industry and the states and tribes to determine additional steps that can be taken to increase the security of our nation's drinking water supplies.
EPA has worked closely with experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy to better understand the potential of biological and chemical contaminants, and their fate and transport within drinking water. The information has been used to develop in-depth tools to help water systems assess vulnerabilities in their systems, determine actions that need to be taken to guard against an attack, and enhance emergency response plans. Beginning in a few weeks, EPA, along with the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and the AWWA Research Foundation, will provide training for management and employees in these advanced approaches to drinking water systems.