The EPA wants you to know that the federal government is taking an active role to safeguard American drinking water from bioterrorism.

The EPA is working to ensure that our water is not affected next. AP Photo.
While it may not be extremely likely, there is a possibility that the nation's drinking water could be the target of a terrorist attack. So, what is the being done to protect you and your customers from water-based bioterrorism? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released this statement to let you know that the federal government is taking an active role to safeguard American drinking water.

EPA is working with other government agencies and water suppliers to ensure that the nation's drinking water continues to be safe, even from terrorist attack. EPA is providing local water utilities with the best scientific information as well as technical training on conducting vulnerability assessments and enhancing emergency response plans should an attack occur. To further protect the nation's drinking water supplies, EPA has set up a special task force to enhance protection efforts already underway. The task force will consider how EPA can support efforts by utilities to accelerate local vulnerability assessments and mitigation actions. The goal is to ensure that water utilities are undertaking the steps to understand vulnerable points and to mitigate the threat from terrorist attacks as quickly as possible. The task force will work to speed up the availability of new advanced materials being prepared by EPA and other federal agencies and private sector partners that will be used in preparedness efforts.

Some Background

There are approximately 168,000 public water systems nationwide, requiring focused teamwork at the federal, state and local levels to protect drinking water supplies across the country. The responsibility for protecting the nation's drinking water is shared by many. The Safe Drinking Water Act establishes a clear partnership between EPA and the states to protect drinking water supplies and sources. EPA sets national drinking water standards to protect public health and provides technical and financial support to states and drinking water suppliers. The states implement and enforce these safe drinking water standards and ensure that drinking water utilities deliver safe water to the tap.

While the threat of public harm from an attack on the nation's water supply is small, EPA's goal is to ensure that drinking water utilities in every community in the United States have access to the best scientific information and technical expertise, assess each utility's vulnerability to a terrorist attack, improve security and know the immediate steps to take should an attack occur. To accomplish these goals, EPA is working with state and local governments to enhance emergency response systems, and with other federal agencies to better understand the potential of biological and chemical contaminants. EPA also has established a centralized notification system, developed tools to help water systems assess vulnerabilities at their facilities and provided water systems with guidelines to improve security. In addition, EPA has established the Water Protection Task Force to further protect the nation's drinking water.

Emergency Response System

EPA and others are prepared to respond to a drinking water emergency should an incident occur. Through existing procedures, EPA would work closely with the law enforcement community, the Department of Defense, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the states and the drinking water utilities to minimize the effects of an attack.

In addition, EPA is prepared to dispatch members of its extensive network of expert emergency response personnel to the scene to support local communities. These professionals have considerable experience and expertise in working with local, state and federal emergency officials and are prepared to help with monitoring and clean up. They also can provide expert advice on contaminants (both potential health effects and treatment).

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, water systems are required to develop emergency response plans for natural and manmade disasters by the end of 2003. Many systems already have an emergency response plan in place. Should an incident occur, a drinking water utility would activate its emergency response plan in conjunction with EPA and 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 (for example, boiling water) and providing alternate sources of water.

Information Sharing

EPA is working closely with world-renowned experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Energy to better understand the potential of biological and chemical contaminants, their fate and transport within drinking water (from source water to distribution), ways to counteract such contaminants through water treatment, and related health effects of exposure. By studying these contaminants, EPA can keep water systems informed of potential threats and how these chemicals affect those who ingest them. Having access to the best scientific knowledge will help a water utility identify any vulnerabilities in its system and be prepared to respond should a biological or chemical agent be introduced into the drinking water supply as part of a terrorist attack.

Should an incident occur, EPA and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) has in place a notification system to quickly share information among drinking water providers, the law enforcement community and emergency response officials. The Information Sharing and Analysis Center, developed through a public-private partnership with the AMWA and the FBI, can be used to alert authorities and water system officials of threats, potential vulnerabilities and incidents. EPA has devoted resources to improve this system to include a secure, Web-based "Virtual Center" that can be accessed by all those who have responsibility to take action.

Technical Assistance and Training

Over the past few years, EPA has provided technical and financial assistance to promote preparedness. While many communities already have taken precautions to safeguard the drinking water supply, others need additional resources and training. The Presidential Decision Directive 63 issued in 1998 requires EPA to work with the drinking water industry to develop tools to identify and correct infrastructure vulnerabilities to terrorist and criminal attacks.

EPA, in conjunction with experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Defense, Department of Energy and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has developed in-depth tools to help water systems access vulnerabilities in their systems, determine actions that need to be taken to guard against an attack, and enhance emergency response plans.

Beginning in the fall of 2001, EPA, along with the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and the AWWA Research Foundation, will begin training managers and employees in advanced approaches to protecting drinking water systems.

In addition, states may provide Drinking Water State Revolving Fund assistance grants to public water supply systems to allow them to complete vulnerability assessments and contingency and emergency response plans. Funding also is available for many of the infrastructure improvements a water system would need to take to ensure security of its drinking water supplies.

Additional Information

A compilation the most frequently asked questions concerning the security of the nation's drinking water can be found at For more information about drinking water, please visit EPA's safe drinking water Web site at or contact the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791.