GAO: Security of water treatment facilities below par

Published 2 May 2006

Water treatment facilities are inviting targets for terrorists because of the toxic chemicals they use and their proximity to population centers, but the water collection system is also vulnerable, and a recent report says not much has been done to protect it

There are some 16,000 publicly owned wastewater treatment facilities in the United States, serving more than 200 million people, or 70 percent of the U.S. population. Security experts are worried that terrorists could place explosives in storm drains or manholes, or could attack the wastewater system directly. One of the key weaknesses of the U.S. water system is that water collection systems frequently are not controlled by the treatment facilities, complicating the task of making the entire system secure.

A report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) notes that wastewater facilities have made security upgrades in recent years, but most have not made efforts to address vulnerabilities in their water collection systems. The facilities have mainly focused security efforts since 9/11 on controlling access to the treatment plant, enhancing visual surveillance, security lighting, and employee and visitor identification. The facilities have not taken action to protect their water collection systems, which often cover a large area. Securing those facilities would require technology such as locks and sensors to detect intrusions to manholes and toxic or other biochemical threats. The facilities cite a lack of funds for the security lapses, as well as focusing on other security priorities.

The GAO report was issued as the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is getting ready to mark up a chemical security bill (S 2145) this month. The bill currently does not include a requirement for water treatment facilities near urban centers to switch from chlorine gas to safer chemicals, but Senator Joseph Liberman (D-Connecticut), one of the bill’s sponsors, said he would introduce an amendment to that effect. Some treatment sites are already moving away from using chlorine as a wastewater detergent. Of the wastewater facilities surveyed, 56 percent said they do not use chlorine gas, and another 10 percent said they plan to stop using it (we reported a few days ago of a Center for American Progress’s report which found that 225 industrial plants across the country have switched to less hazardous materials since 2001, including moving from chlorine gas to liquid chlorine bleach or ultraviolet light).