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EPA Establishes Water Protection Task Force to Safeguard Drinking Water

EPA is establishing a water protection task force that is charged with helping federal, state and local partners protect the nation's drinking water supplies.

Drinking water is a precious commodity and one that could be vulnerable to attack. The U.S. Environmental Agency (EPA) is establishing a water protection task force that is charged with helping federal, state and local partners expand their tools to safeguard the nation's drinking water supply from terrorist attack. There are about 168,000 public water systems nationwide.

"While EPA already has a strong coordinated partnership program for protecting our drinking water, this task force will have specific duties to expand EPA's service to the community water systems," said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman.

"The threat of public harm from an attack on our nation's water supply is small. Our goal here is to ensure that drinking water utilities in every community have access to the best scientific information and technical expertise they need, and to know what immediate steps to take and to whom to turn for help," Whitman added.

According to EPA, water systems in the United States are generally self-contained. Unlike other utilities that are interconnected across large parts of the nation, individual water systems serve a defined area.

The water protection task force is charged with providing immediate guidance to water systems on improving security. It will revise a draft 1998 infrastructure plan while continuing to implement the existing strategy. The task force also will identify potential gaps in infrastructure protection and preparedness. Finally, it will consult with the utility industry and the states and tribes to determine additional steps that can be taken to increase the security of the nation's drinking water supplies. The first report on these additional steps is due within two weeks.

The task force will consider how EPA can support efforts by utilities to accelerate local vulnerability assessments and mitigation actions. The goal is to ensure that water utilities understand vulnerable points and mitigate the threat from terrorist attacks as quickly as possible. The task force will work to speed up the availability of new materials being prepared by EPA and other federal agencies and private sector partners that will be used in preparedness efforts.

EPA already has a notification system that quickly shares information among drinking water providers, the law enforcement community (local, state and federal), and emergency response officials. This system, developed through a public/private partnership with the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) and the FBI, alerts authorities and water system officials to threats, potential vulnerabilities and incidents. Such a notification went out as an FBI alert after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

In the unlikely event of an attack on a water system, a drinking water utility would activate its existing emergency response plan with state emergency officials. If needed, these plans provide for shutting down the system, notifying the public of any emergency steps they might need to take (for example, boiling water) and providing alternative sources of water.

Should an attack be suspected, EPA can dispatch expert emergency response personnel to the scene immediately, as was done for the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These experts are located in all of EPA's 10 regions and they have considerable experience in working with local, state and federal emergency officials and are prepared to help with monitoring, cleanup and expert advice on contaminants.

EPA has worked closely with experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy to better understand the potential of biological and chemical contaminants, and their fate and transport within drinking water. The information has been used to develop in-depth tools to help water systems assess vulnerabilities in their systems, determine actions that need to be taken to guard against an attack, and enhance emergency response plans. Beginning in a few weeks, EPA, along with the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and the AWWA Research Foundation, will provide training for management and employees in these advanced approaches to drinking water systems.

edited by Sandy Smith

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