FBI says US water supplies logical attack target
WASHINGTON - The FBI said yesterday U.S. water supplies can be considered a \"logical target for a possible terrorist attack,\" although authorities know of no credible threat to poison the nation\'s drinking water, and carrying out such an attack would be harder than it sounds.
At a hearing before a House of Representatives subcommittee on potential threats to the water supply, the nation\'s publicly owned water agencies also asked Congress to spend $5 billion to shore up the water supply infrastructure with the aim of protecting national security.
\"Could our water be poisoned? Can the distribution system be shut down? Can biological agents be placed in the system? As you know, our water supply can be affected by a number of malicious enemies,\" Ronald Dick, director of the FBI\'s National Infrastructure Protection Center, told a panel of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
\"Based on available intelligence and investigative information, there are currently no specific, credible threats to any water distribution network. We cannot rest on that information, though,\" Dick added.
Law enforcement authorities have been scrambling to protect against numerous types of potential domestic attacks in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks in which hijackers crashed airliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington.
The subcommittee\'s chairman, Tennessee Republican Rep. John Duncan, said the men who carried out the attacks turned planes into weapons of mass destruction. He said U.S. officials must consider the possibility of someone turning water supplies into weapons of mass destruction through contamination.
\"One of the worst things we could do would be to exaggerate the threat that\'s out there, or help create some kind of a panic situation,\" Duncan said. \"On the other hand, we need to look very seriously at the situation that we now have before us and do whatever is reasonable and responsible.\"
Dick said the FBI coordinates a threat-assessment process in order to assess the credibility of any possible threat such as introducing deadly bacteria or viruses, chemicals or radioactive material into water supplies.
\"With regard to contamination by biological agents, the nation\'s water supply may seem to be a logical target for a terrorist attack,\" Dick said. He added that the FBI views such an attack as \"possible but not probable,\" noting that a perpetrator would need large amounts of a contaminant and knowledge of and access to key locations in the water supply.
A FRAGMENTED WATER-SUPPLY SYSTEM
\"Because our supply consists of many systems, it would be difficult for a terrorist attack to have a broad, long-term impact,\" Dick said. There are 168,000 public drinking water systems throughout America.
\"Further, contamination of a water reservoir with a biological agent would probably not pose a large risk to public health because of the dilution effect, filtration and disinfection of the water,\" he added. \"To contaminate the water supply with a hazardous industrial chemical, it would take a truckload of the chemical to have any effect.\"
Dick said germs can cause disease by being ingested through drinking water, but inhaling these pathogens would be more deadly. He added that most viruses and bacteria would be rendered harmless by the chlorination process at water treatment facilities.
Environmental Protection Agency official Marianne Horinko noted that on Friday the EPA created a task force aimed at helping federal, state and local officials better safeguard the nation\'s drinking water supply from attack.
John Sullivan of the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, who represented the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, told the House panel U.S. drinking water utilities have been on a heightened state of alert since Sept. 11.
But Sullivan, whose group represents utilities that provide water to 160 million Americans, said emergency-response plans in place at many water systems address emergencies due to natural disasters or accidents - not deliberate attacks.
Sullivan asked Congress for $5 billion to help rehabilitate the water and waste-water treatment infrastructure to allow for better treatment, storage, transmission and distribution.
Story by Will Dunham
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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