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Mayors Meet in Miami Beach to Discuss Water Security

By Rich Anderson
April 15, 2002

Mayor Douglas H. Palmer, Trenton (NJ) and Mayor Bob Young, Augusta (GA), Co'Chairmen of the Urban Water Council convened the Urban Water Summit in Miami Beach, April 4th'6th. The mayors were joined by other members of the Urban Water Council to review the status of water system security post September 11, 2001.

Mayor Palmer kicked off the session by introducing a panel comprised of Rob Renner, Deputy Executive Director, and Tom Curtis, Deputy Executive Director for Government Affairs, both from the American Water Works Association (AWWA). Renner described the involvement AWWA has had with water security issues. Renner pointed to the key role that water provision has played in the United States. He reviewed the astonishingly effective "public health legacy" of water purification in the nation, stamping out over 100,000 deaths per year tied to waterborne diseases through applying disinfection and filtration technology. The current emphasis on protecting water systems from bioterrorism is a logical extension of those efforts.

Renner reviewed threats to public water supplies at different points in the system: source, treatment works, and distribution systems. He explained threats were possible at different points in the system. "Water systems are not very vulnerable, but they are not invincible," is the way he described the situation. AWWA has developed a campaign of rationalizing the potential for bioterrorist attack points and what system operators need to know to protect against such threats.

AWWA has reviewed threats from physical destruction, biological agents, and chemical contamination. Renner explained the threats sound greater than they really are. For example, biological agents injected into water supplies at the source are usually diluted and significantly weakened. If dilution doesn't neutralize the agent, then normal or residual chlorination - long recognized as the greatest defense against waterborne microorganisms - effectively destroys infectious agents.

Renner emphasized that perhaps the greatest problem since the September attack is the rash of false threats that create general fear among the public. Public fear from false threats is especially effective when the threats are directed to the public water supply.

In addition to providing general information in the form of handbooks, videos, and web site information, the AWWA provides guidance to system operators on how to conduct system vulnerability assessments. The organization is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Protection Advisory Group for Water Security. The Group is keyed in to the FBI's warning alert system. Mayors interested in learning more about the alert system should call Gay Porter DeNileon at 303-794'7711.

Tom Curtis discussed intergovernmental issues. He stated that EPA is currently accepting grant applications from water system operators that serve populations of over 100,000 for the purpose of conducting vulnerability assessments. He stated that Congress is considering mandates that could be imposed on water utilities.

Curtis reviewed the list of intergovernmental bodies that have either a responsibility or some authority for responding to terrorist actions. While local government is often first on the scene of an incident, the mayor can typically expect that state and federal agencies will assert a role as well. Confusion ensues over who makes decisions and who coordinates activities. Officials may also experience confusion over who should be communicating to the public through the media. There is also a concern over who will eventually pay for the response to a terrorist event.

Curtis told the mayors that the best thing is to be prepared before something actually happens. All Departments should have a plan and a standard implementation protocol along with coordinated communications. Curtis opined that "an acceptable plan today is better than a perfect plan a day after the terrorist attack." He stated that mayors should be familiar with state emergency response and preparedness plans. Finally, he emphasized that Water Department supervisors conducting system vulnerability assessments should require strict confidentiality from their employees.

Evelyn Washington, Acting Deputy Director of EPA's Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water made comments on the AWWA security presentation. Washington confirmed that EPA is currently accepting applications from large water system operators for grants to conduct vulnerability assessments. The Deputy Director described various activities that EPA has undertaken in light of the September 11 attacks. She stated that Cynthia Dougherty is coordinating information, communications, and response actions.

Kip Howlett, Executive Director of the Chlorine Chemistry Council, made points concerning the salutary effects of water chlorination and measures that have been taken to protect chlorine supplies at, or being transported to, water systems. Howlett referred to Life magazine's assertion that drinking water chlorination is "probably the most significant public health advance of the millennium." Not only does chlorine effectively kill most biological agents that terrorists are likely to consider using, but residual chlorine extends protection through the system, right up to the tap.

Howlett acknowledged that there have been some concerns raised about the transportation of chlorine supplies through cities, mainly by rail, to water systems. He stated that the record of safe transportation is significant. Chlorine's rail safety record for the period 1996 - 2000 indicates that of 68.25 million tons of chlorine produced and 22.7 million tons of liquid chlorine shipped by rail in 255,000 tank cars, there was only 1 derailment incident in which a chlorine car was breached in Alberton, MT (1996).

He emphasized that new concerns have lead chlorine producers, shippers, and users to implement new initiatives intended to enhance security and reduce risks from terrorist attacks. Cooperative efforts to coordinate and share intelligence among shippers, carriers, law enforcement, and emergency response groups are essential.

The chlorine industry has started partnerships and programs through the Chlorine Institute, a scientific and technical organization. Two particular efforts include: CHLOREP'Chlorine Emergency Plan, intended to provide an emergency response capability throughout the US and Canada; and TRANSCAER'Transportation Community Awareness & Emergency Response. This effort involves chemical shippers and carriers who provide expert training in chemical emergency response to local fire and HAZMAT agencies throughout the US and Canada.