Protecting the Water Supply from Terrorism

By Kevin Coleman

There are nearly 50,000 community and 200,000 public and private water systems in operation today.Concerns have been raised over protecting the nation's water supply from terrorist attacks.While many believe that the threat of contamination of drinking water through terrorist activities is low (those that are out of touch with reality), a grim warning from Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson acknowledges the threat.In his resignation speech he stated that an attack on our food or water supply would be 'so easy to do.' However, it should be noted that there are no specific, credible threats to the nation's drinking water at this time.

In October 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began working with other government agencies and water suppliers to ensure that the nation's water supply continues to be protected from terrorist attacks.The 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, the EPA has set up a special task force to enhance protection efforts already underway.

Protecting the water supply from terrorist attacks is a very large task.With all the attention and activity since 2001 why is the water supply still a likely area of attack? How real is the threat? How difficult would it be for terrorist to strike? These questions and more will be addressed in this article.

The Water Supply
Let's look at the characteristics that make the nation's water supply a primary target.

In the U.S.the water supply systems are owned and operated by many different entities.Some by State or local government and others by private companies.The water systems throughout the nation are highly distributed by design.A distributed design allows flexibility when the system suffers equipment failures or routine maintenance.It is this type of design that makes safeguarding the water supply highly complex and extremely costly.The nation's water system is comprised of interlocking components that include: the water supply system (dams, reservoirs, natural lakes, wells, etc.); water treatment and filtration system; the water distribution system (pipes, pumps, valves storage tanks, etc.); and of course control systems often run by computers. These systems are mostly aging and in urgent need of upgrading, not simply to protect them from terrorist attack but to keep them handling the growing water needs of the nation.

Where could attacks occur? Our nation's water systems are set up to deal with contaminants.Many feel that a terrorist attack which places chemicals or even biological agents in the water supply is unlikely to be successful.Contamination of a reservoir with a biological agent would not likely produce a large risk to public health because of the dilution effect.These reservoirs contain hundreds of thousands and in some cases millions of gallons of water.A massive amount of contaminant would be required for a successful terrorist attack at this point.If agents were to be introduced at this point they are likely to be detected and unlikely to survive the chlorination process. Even so, filtration and disinfection of the water may occur down stream mitigating the contamination.However, if the point contamination is after a treatment facility where filters, chlorination and other preventative measures would no longer be effective, the likelihood of success is much greater. Fortunately, this type of act is still subject to the dilution issue which would lessen the severity of such an attack.There are scenarios that have been discussed where the likelihood of success is high and for obvious reasons we will not go into any further details about those specific scenarios.

The Threat
Attacks on the nation's water supply can come in many forms.Contamination from chemical or biological agents or merely disruption to the processing, filtration and distribution are two types of attacks.The primary threats to the nation's drinking water supplies are contamination by chemical, biological or radiological agents; damage, destruction, or sabotage of physical infrastructure; and disruption to computer systems.

Did you know - The first documented use of a biological or chemical agent occurred in the 6th century B.C.

Contamination can be caused by chemical, organic or biological materials.There are laws governing the acceptable amounts of contaminants, measured in parts per million or parts per billion in the nation's drinking water.We are examining the intentional contamination of drinking water as an act of terrorism.

Did you know - Biological agents occur naturally and that the parasite Cryptosporidium in Milwaukee's drinking water resulted in about 100 deaths and made 400,000 other people ill in 1993.Cryptosporidium is a naturally occurring microbiological parasite commonly found in lakes and rivers that can infect humans and cause gastrointestinal illness.

The U.S.water supply is one of the best in the world.Equipment is in place to filter and chemically treat the water to make it suitable for human consumption.These facilities are required by law to monitor and report all levels of contamination on a regular basis.At this time water treatment facilities are not capable of testing for all known chemicals or biological contaminants.In fact, the detection technology to do so is costly and does not address the wide spectrum of possible biological and chemical agents. Real-time monitoring is critical to minimize the impact of a terrorist attack.At present there is currently no real-time detection capability for biological pathogens in water and only a limited capability for chemicals.

Impeding the ability of the water supply to reach the populace can have far reaching implications.Businesses would not be able to conduct operations, process manufacturing would be halted, restaurants would close and our daily routines would be thrown into disarray.In many areas drinking water is also used to supply fire hydrants.Without adequate water supply, the fire department's ability to fight fires would be all but neutralized. Attacks on holding tanks, major distribution arteries, pumping stations or filtration and treatment facilities could cause significant disruption to the water supply.

Cyber-terrorism is another potential threat to disrupt service.Computer networks and digital monitoring technology play a key role in the management of our nation's water supplies.In theory, a skilled hacker could create all kinds of havoc either from within or from beyond our borders.

Did you know - Authorities previously have found a computer belonging to a person with indirect ties to Osama bin Laden that contained architectural and engineering software related to dams and other water-retaining structures, according to the FBI.

The highly distributed nature of local water supplies places pumping stations, holding tanks, electronically controlled valves and miles upon miles of piping in remote and often obscure locations making them prime targets for terrorists.The ability to continuously monitor this vast distribution is not economically feasible.Even if it could be accomplished economically, the time to design, install, test, and train the operational staff of the security equipment could reach into the decades.

Assessment Matrix
In looking at this problem we used the TIE (Transdisciplinary Intelligence Engineering) framework to rate the water supply threat, protection and impact.The output of this framework is represented in the following graphic.

Click image for larger view.

So what security measures have been taken? Rapid detection and quantification of a chemical or biological attack on a water supply is difficult at best.Organizations responsible for water distribution systems have increased the physical security of each of facilities.However, one in-ground holding tank had a padlock on the door leading to the water contained in the tank.A simple pair of bolt cutters could have defeated that security. For the most part, water supply security has focused on access control and intelligence, with minimal attention being given to enhanced sensors that detect chemicals or biological agents.Indications are that in the coming years this will change and more R&D dollars will be spent on monitoring and detection.

Damage to or destruction of the nation's water supply and water quality infrastructure by terrorist attack could disrupt the delivery of vital human services, threatening public health and safety as well as the environment.It could even cause loss of life.The entire water treatment and distribution system must be protected not just the treatment or storage facilities.A real-time chemical biological detection system with remote sampling and sensing capabilities coupled with GIS will significantly improve the safety of the nation's water supply.Engineering changes in water distribution system design and metering must also take place.We should not forget the SCADA systems.SCADA is the acronym for SUPERVISORY CONTROL AND DATA ACQUISITION.SCADA systems are a critical component and are at risk from cyber terrorism.The entire software industry must be made to rethink software security and be held accountable.Security is designed in; not bolted on.This holds true in the physical world and in the software world.

Published Monday, January 17th, 2005

Written by Kevin Coleman

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