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How Vulnerable is Our Drinking Water?

By Matt Faris, PE, Senior Project Manager, Koontz-Bryant, P.C.

Recent events around the world have focused on physical terrorism.  These assaults on humanity have been carried out with personal handguns, semi-automatic rifles, explosive devices, ground-to-air missiles, and other weapons.  The attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001 put the world on notice that anything is possible.

One of the first bio-terrorism attempts in the US affecting a community’s health was in Dalles, Oregon, approximately 70 miles west of Portland, in 1984.  Followers of a “guru” named Rajneesh (later Osho) planned to contaminate salad bars in the town of Dalles.  Hundreds were sickened during a trial run of this attack, and the plans for a future attack were uncovered and stopped.  The goal of the bio-terrorism was to minimize the number of locals voting, allowing the cult of Rajneeshee to win the local council elections!  We all see one of the safety measures implemented after this attempt: the clear shields that now protect every food and salad bar in the nation.

There is far more to the profession of Civil Engineering than getting plans approved. As civil engineers, we are concerned about all aspects of infrastructure: roads, bridges, water systems, communication, and more. In response to the 9/11 attacks, the U. S. Government evaluated many of our infrastructure systems, including the safety of the drinking water systems across America.  An effective way to frighten an entire city is to threaten the safety of their water supply.  The events in Flint Michigan over the past year offer a clear example of the dangers of poor drinking water and the fears that can engulf an entire community, regardless of the cause.

The post 9/11 studies exposed  vulnerabilities in many drinking water systems.  These vulnerabilities included the possibility of hacking into electronic control systems, tampering with chemicals used in the treatment process, and access to drinking water storage facilities from tanks to reservoirs.  Teams of consultants - including Civil Engineers, former Navy SEALS and Electronic Security experts - studied individual systems that served populations with more than 30,000 users.  They identified potential hazards, created a theoretical manual on how to break the systems, and then designed protection against these methods.  The reports generated by these efforts were presented only to the water systems being studied.  Not even the EPA received copies of these studies.  Most of these water systems  implemented the recommendations of their individual studies.

As a result of the confidentiality of the studies, there is less information available on the internet related to infrastructure than there was at one time. There are fewer access points to bodies of water.  Access to treatment plants and materials within these plants is restricted.   Some of these targets provide very little in the way of exposure. Realistically, even if a water system tampering had minor real effects, the perceived effects would be enormous, impacting personal water consumption,  wastewater treatment,  the industrial water supply used in much of today’s manufacturing, and more.

Discussions with local utilities and familiarity with the efforts put in place to increase the access and safety of local systems results in a safer water system.  Koontz-Bryant P.C. can offer water safety solutions or methods to assess risk in physical infrastructures that meet the needs of our clients. Let us know if you think we can assist in exploring new ideas or evaluating old ones.  For more information on these types of services contact Matt Faris at 804-200-1935 or via email.

Matt Faris, PE, certified in RAM-W (Risk Assessment Methodology- Water) is passionate about evaluating and assessing risk in physical infrastructures. He has conducted risk assessments at numerous water systems across the country.