EPA Behind in Protection of Water Supply--NY Times Science Section

Miller 4amiller at bellsouth.net
Thu Oct 4 20:55:15 EST 2001


October 4, 2001

THE WATER SUPPLY

The Environmental Protection Agency has fallen years behind its 
timetable for safeguarding the nation's water supply against a possible 
terrorist attack, according to the agency's internal documents.

Under orders from President Bill Clinton, the agency detailed its plans 
for protecting the nation's drinking water in 1998, offering a road map 
for the administration's campaign to foil terrorist plots by fortifying 
the United States' infrastructure.

Yet many of the steps that the agency said would be completed as long as 
two years ago, like identifying vulnerabilities, have just begun or are 
still on the drawing board. That is prompting some lawmakers to call for 
stricter oversight of the E.P.A.'s antiterrorism efforts.

"Our nation no longer has the luxury of time to build adequate defenses 
against threats to our drinking water," Senator Christopher S. Bond of 
Missouri, the senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee, wrote 
in a letter this week to Christie Whitman, the agency administrator. "We 
must build them now."

The chances of successful chemical and biological attacks on municipal 
water supplies are slim, experts say. Treatment plants filter out many 
contaminants, and chlorine kills many organisms. Many cities draw on 
several reservoirs for water, so even poisoned ones can be closed while 
fresh sources are used.

Nonetheless, scientists worry that terrorists could pump contaminants 
directly into neighborhood water lines or try to destroy dams, aqueducts 
or tunnels.

In an audit being released today, the environmental agency's inspector 
general found that the agency had secured the 16 sites it operates, but 
had done little to address the safety of the thousands of local water 
systems whose supervision it had been assigned three years ago.

In the last three weeks, utility companies have been posting armed 
guards around water treatment plants, installing tamperproof manhole 
covers in sidewalks and blocking roads around reservoirs.

But while cities have emergency plans in place, most of those are 
designed to tackle natural disasters, not terrorism.

The E.P.A. said in 1998 that it would bridge that gap by telling cities 
what kinds of sabotage to expect and how to find weaknesses. Much of 
that work was to be done by 1999, but it has yet to be finished. The 
agency now hopes to have it done by winter.

For local water companies, the delay at the environmental agency has 
meant a shortage of guidance when they need it most.

One reason for the delays, the agency says, is that it still does not 
completely know what the risks are. Scientists have made great strides 
in identifying the organisms that can survive in chlorinated waterways, 
but they are still grappling with the best ways to counteract them. 
Putting out erroneous information just to keep to a schedule would be 
counterproductive, the agency says.

Another problem, it says, is a budgetary process that requires the 
agency to request money 18 months before it is used. So although the 
agency's plan to combat terrorist threats to water was completed in 
1998, the E.P.A. did not get any money from Congress until 2000.

Some companies say that in the absence of clear directives they are 
evaluating and shielding their systems as best they can.

"We'd certainly be further along than we are now," said Tom Curtis, 
deputy director of the American Water Works
.




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