Most experts believe key reservoirs are safe

By Dan Vergano

Three young men lurk outside the water plant late at night. Dressed in dark clothes, faces painted black and holding buckets of contaminants, they prepare weapons and explosives.

They had scouted the plant, mapping its corridors and stealing a key. The plot: poison the water supply for the 24,000 residents of Neenah, Wis. But an engineer steps outside for a smoke, sees the intruders and ruins the plan.

On that August night 3 years ago, the attackers weren't terrorists, but bored teenagers. Their poison: powdered soap.

''We really tightened up a lot after that,'' says engineer Larry Wettering of the Neenah Water Treatment Plant. Now, water utilities nationwide are undergoing the same security scramble and accelerating steps to protect reservoirs, dams and treatment plants from terrorists. Though none will go into details, typical steps include:

* Beefed up security teams, fencing and locks.

* Shutting down tours and keeping large vehicles off access roads.

* Installing motion sensors, alarms and video cameras at key locations.

* Expanding emergency inlet systems to bypass contaminated water.

* Increased efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory to help reservoir operators.

In Colorado, for example, boating at a dozen government-run bodies of water is off-limits or restricted. The state's most heavily visited site, Lake Pueblo State Park outside Pueblo, is closed and blockaded.

Department of Interior facilities remain on alert after the hijackings. Metropolitan utilities in an FBI cooperative program called InfraGard received a confidential list of suspicious names to check against employee records within 3 days of the attacks.

Nationwide, security is up at some of the 9,300 ''high hazard'' dams -- whose collapse would cause human deaths -- and for the 3,000 metropolitan water utilities providing drinking water to 70% of the population. ''These utilities are run by professionals who take their jobs very seriously,'' says civil engineer John McLaughlin, who heads North Carolina's Disaster Preparedness Committee.

Overall, experts such as Ken Alibek, a former Soviet bioweapons maker, dismiss waterborne bioterrorism as likely to fail if perpetrated on any well-run waterworks. For starters, truckloads of poison would be required to threaten major reservoirs that cover huge areas. Practice with hoaxes and natural disasters -- such as a cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee in 1993 -- has trained waterworks managers how to handle widespread poisonings, making bioterrorist or chemical attacks less likely to succeed, experts say. However, vulnerabilities remain, says water pollution microbiologist Joan Rose of the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. In perhaps the most immediately dangerous scenario, a determined saboteur who understood plumbing could ''back-siphon'' contaminants into the water supply of a building or neighborhood. A shift by many water systems from chlorine -- shunned because of its chemical reactivity -- to milder detergents might worsen such an invasion.

Destroying a dam or the pipes feeding a reservoir represents another threat. In 1998, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave dam safety nationwide a ''D'' on its Infrastructure Report Card. Only 33% of non-federal ''high hazard'' dams have emergency plans, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

''We have to assure ourselves that facilities have emergency plans in place,'' says Diane Vande Hei, head of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies. Other priorities include continuing testing the strength of high-priority dams. In essence, water utilities will remain at ''high alert'' for some time, she says.