SILVER SPRING – Maryland lawmakers joined the head of the Environmental Protection Agency at a suburban Washington water utility Thursday to reassure people that their drinking water is safe from a biological attack.
The news conference came as reported cases of anthrax grow, and police, local governments and water utilities have been contacted by worried residents who are afraid the next terrorist attacks could simply pour through their faucets into their homes.
“We’ve had a number of false alarms,” said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, who toured a Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission water-testing laboratory with Montgomery and Prince George’s county executives, state delegates and commission officials.
“People can be assured that everything that can be done is being done to protect the nation’s water supply,” Whitman said.
WSSC officials said they have increased security at their facilities by 50 percent since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and have added to the 200 substances they already scan the water for.
The officials stressed that large quantities of dangerous biological or chemical agents would be needed to threaten a large metropolitan area that it would be far too expensive, impractical and obvious for a terrorist to attempt it.
Whitman said about 40 substances have the potential to damage the nation’s water infrastructure, but most of those would be filtered out before the contaminated water would reach households. She said it would take “truckloads of anthrax” to poison a city through its water supply, for example.
“It would not be an effective way for a terrorist to endanger the health of the public,” Whitman said.
Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda, echoed Whitman, saying it would be “awfully hard to do anything that would cause big problems with the water.”
But county officials worried that, on the outside chance that there would be a drinking water problem, local governments are not prepared to deal with it on their own.
“It will require a different approach to how local government works with federal government,” said Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry.
Curry, backed by Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, urged Whitman to take those concerns to President Bush and Homeland Defense Secretary Tom Ridge.
“We have residents across our communities and residents across the country that are very, very anxious,” Duncan said.
Whitman noted that though the threat is small, “There are never any iron- clad guarantees.” She said people should not hesitate to call their water utilities for more information about safety or to report any suspicious activity they see.
“If you see something, call,” Whitman said. “We’d rather respond than miss something that could be important.”
The WSSC, which serves about 1.6 million people in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, is one of the country’s largest water and wastewater utilities. Whitman called its Silver Spring lab a “state-of-the-art facility.”
She noted that while not all regions of the country have the same resources, people should still feel that it is safe to drink and use their water. Necessary precautions are being taken at every facility, regardless of their size or the resources available to them, Whitman said.