EPA gives water companies $53 million to study water safety

June 2002

U.S. Water News Online

LAUREL, Md. -- The Environmental Protection Agency will give $53 million to water utilities nationwide to study the vulnerability of drinking water systems to terrorist attack.

Standing in front of the Rocky Gorge Reservoir outside Washington, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said the agency expects to give out 400 grants to help utilities find and fix weaknesses.

``The first step is to make sure utilities have done a complete and full assessment,'' Whitman said after giving the first grant of $115,000 to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

WSSC officials welcomed the help, but said the next step -- paying for new security measures to ensure the safety of public drinking water -- is their primary concern.

The utility, which serves 1.6 million customers in Prince George's and Montgomery counties and several federal installations in Maryland, has already surveyed procedures at its reservoirs, treatment facilities and wastewater treatment plants. WSSC estimates it could cost as much as $100 million to implement new safety standards.

WSSC General Manager John Griffin said the federal government has been helpful with safety training, but that the utility may have to pass some of the additional cost on to consumers if the EPA or state doesn't give more help.

``They've been cooperating with us and are deferential. But there hasn't been a whole lot of money that has flowed to this,'' Griffin said.

The Sept. 11 attacks and ensuing anthrax scare led to concerns that terrorists may try to release chemical or biological agents into water supplies or sabotage water systems. Many utilities have since beefed up security at reservoirs and treatment centers.

Whitman said the EPA recommends that utilities use a modified safety assessment developed for nuclear power plants to check water systems for potential weaknesses. Researchers from the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, which developed the protocol, have also trained utility workers to detect harmful waterborne agents.

Whitman wouldn't say what chemicals or biological agents the EPA was worried about, but said it would be difficult to contaminate water, noting terrorists would need ``a truckload'' of chemicals to poison a water system.

The EPA has $90 million available for water safety. Whitman said the agency would seek additional funding to help utilities implement new protections.

Other public utilities and local governments slated to get $115,000 grants are San Juan Water District in California, Elgin, Ill., Naperville, Ill., Wilmette, Ill., and the Orlando Utilities Commission in Florida. The Rend Lake Conservancy District in Benton, Ill., will get $96,000.