EPA Administrator Christie Whitman allayed fears for the security of the nation's water systems during a visit to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission Consolidated Laboratory in Silver Spring, Maryland. She said EPA believes the possibility of successful contamination of a water system is small.
"As someone who drinks water at home from the tap -- as does my family -- this is a concern I certainly understand. People are worried that a small amount of some chemical or biological agent—a few drops, for instance—could result in significant threats to the health of large numbers of people. I want to assure people–that scenario just can't happen," said Whitman.
"It would take large amounts of contaminants to threaten the safety of a city water system. Because of increased security at water reservoirs and other facilities around the country—and because people are being extra vigilant as well—we believe it would be very difficult for anyone to introduce the quantities needed to contaminate an entire system."
"For more than 80 years, our mission has been to supply safe, clean water to our customers," said WSSC General Manager John R. Griffin. "Since our nation's recent tragedies, we've strengthened our already solid foundation of safety and security measures. Our modern water quality laboratory helps to ensure we fulfill that crucial mission."
The Administrator explained that systems already in place for treating drinking water before it comes out of the tap will, in many cases, remove the immediate threat to public health. EPA has worked with partners like the Association of Metropolitan Water Authorities, (AMWA), to make sure water utilities receive information on the steps they can take to protect their sources of supply and their infrastructure. Diane van de Hei, Executive Director of AMWA , joined the Administrator at the event.
In addition, Sandia National Laboratories is working with EPA to develop training materials for water companies so they can conduct thorough assessments of their vulnerable points. Sandia representatives Robert Eagan, Vice President Energy, Information and Infrastructure Surety Division and Peter Davies, Director Geoscience & Environment Center, also took part in the press conference.
"Several weeks ago I directed that these materials, originally scheduled to become available next year, be put on a fast track. I'm pleased to announce that training using these materials will begin for water system operators early next month," Whitman explained.
Another step EPA has taken to protect water systems was to work with the FBI to advise every local law enforcement agency in the country of steps they can take to help watch for possible threats to water systems.
"In addition, later today, I will be holding a conference call with governors from around the country to discuss how we can help them and how they can support and enhance our efforts," said Whitman.
The Administrator explained that despite small probabilities and stepped-up prevention, there are no "iron-clad guarantees." Should an attack succeed, EPA is ready to respond immediately. "Our experts are ready to provide guidance. Our federal labs are ready to provide analysis. And our specialists are ready to assist in recovery," said Whitman. "It's also important to remember that America's water utilities are not interconnected."