Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Waste Water Security

I ran into an interesting article at CullmanTimes.com about a recent ‘security incident’ at their local waste water treatment plant. A local council woman and a constituent are potentially facing trespassing charges for entering the unsecured waste treatment plant. There seems to be a local political angle involved in the story, but it is clear that, except for a lock on the front gate, there is no real security at the facility. It is made clear in the article that the facility is not manned on a continuous basis; it is set up for automated operation for significant portions of time. This is not unusual with these treatment facilities in small cities and towns. Apparently, neither is the lack of an on-site security guard. According to the article the existing security system “currently monitors only the entrance area”. Apparently they use a video system, but it is not clear from the article who monitors that system and why the two women were not detected entering the plant by that security system. In fact, it is curious why the unlocked gate, left open by a city street department employee, was not detected by the security system. This is a good example of why the current waste water treatment security regulations, managed by the Environmental Protection Agency, need to be updated. Facilities are required to conduct a vulnerability assessment and certify that they have addressed identified shortcomings. The EPA has no enforceable security standards in its regulations, nor does it have the authority to impose any. Some would question why a waste treatment facility really needs security in any case; after all the worst that could happen is untreated waste water could be released into local water ways. While certainly creating an environmental problem, this does not sound like a terrorist target. Except that most of these smaller facilities use chlorine gas as part of the final disinfection step before they discharge the treated water back into the environment. This chlorine gas is a potential release hazard at larger facilities and a theft hazard at the smallest facilities. In either case, that makes these facilities a potential terrorist target. Now, I don’t want to imply that Cullman, Alabama is specifically on a terrorist list of targets. But an outside assessment needs to be made of the level of the potential threat for each of these treatment plants. That will not be done under the current law. Congress needs to bring water, waste and drinking, treatment plants with significant inventories of chlorine gas and other hazardous chemicals under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards.

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