Water utilities say supplies are safe, attack is unlikely

Friday, September 28, 2001

Staff Writer

By the evening of Sept. 11, the new fear gripping Americans had shown itself at Oradell Reservoir.

United Water Resources had changed the locks on the gates. A program that gave birders and fishermen access to company grounds was quickly suspended.

Following the terrorist strikes, utilities across the country have clamped down on security. United Water took similar measures at all its facilities. But experts say the fear on many people's minds, a biological or chemical assault to poison waterways, is one of the least likely threats right now.

The sheer size of public water supplies is so great, they say, sabotage would require a volume of poison near impossible to obtain and transport in secret.

"You're talking 18-wheelers full of things and trying to somehow dump this stuff in with nobody noticing them," said Jeff Danneels, a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, where he is studying water system safety. "It's an enormous task if you sit down and do the calculations."

That doesn't mean water companies are invulnerable. Utilities fear a bomb at a treatment plant or a dam perhaps even more than contamination. Although they feel confident that a massive contamination would be detected before harming the public, such a contamination could still force the shutdown of supplies that serve millions.

"It would take awhile to clean up," said Jeff Tittel, executive director for the state's Sierra Club chapter. "You'd knock out your water supply for months, and that would have tremendous economic and public health impacts."

Heightened security around water supplies comes amid news that the suspected hijackers inquired about use of crop-dusting planes before the Sept. 11 attacks. The FBI has detained a number of Middle Eastern men who fraudulently obtained licenses for transport of hazardous materials.

Federal officials have issued two calls for tighter security at utilities since the attacks, though they have reported no specific threats. Water utilities and police reported that they have stepped up patrols and increased testing of drinking water, but declined to be more specific. Phil White, a spokesman for the Wanaque Reservoir system, would say only that the system was employing "heightened security."

Generally, water officials seemed confident.

"People have to remember that normal contaminant barriers that we use day to day, year to year, go a long way to protect the customer," said United Water spokesman Kevin Doell. "We have tremendous power in terms of cleaning and purifying water."

Several officials mentioned the difficulty entailed in obtaining large amounts of poison. They pointed out that the reservoirs in and around New Jersey are mostly large ones. United Water's four reservoirs in Bergen and Rockland counties, for example, hold about 14 billion gallons, total. New York City's water system processes 1.3 billion gallons daily.

A bio-terrorist seeking to spread the bacteria that causes botulism -- which can paralyze victims -- would need about a kilogram of the germ to poison even a small reservoir, said Raymond Zilinskas of the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.

A kilogram of the botulinim toxin is about the size of a 2-pound bag of sugar. That may sound like a small amount, but it's a relative mountain compared with the amounts drug companies and other sources have on hand for research, said Zilinskas, deputy director of the institute's chemical and biological warfare program.

"You're talking about huge quantities," he said.

A successful contamination would leave other warning signs -- massive fish kills, or a strange color or odor in the water. Arsenic, for example, leaves a yellowish tint and burnt almond smell.

And most communities use chlorine and other methods to clean water before it reaches residents' taps. Those safeguards would kill or weaken most biological agents, scientists said.

Danneels, the Sandia researcher, said restricting public access to reservoirs may be an "overreaction." The greater danger, he and others said, is an infiltration of the staff at a water treatment plant, water tower, or pumping station -- beyond most of a system's protections.

Danneels urged water suppliers to take stock of their internal security. Limit access to sensitive areas around a plant, he counseled, and redo background checks for employees and contractors.

"If you look at what they did on the 11th with box-cutters, that low-tech threat -- there's a lot of low-tech things you could do to bring the water supply system to its knees," Danneels said.