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
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