WASHINGTON – A Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission official told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday that more than $4 billion is needed to boost safety of the nation’s water supply in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
About $15 million of that amount would be needed for the WSSC alone, which serves 1.6 million people in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, officials said. The utility, one of the 10 largest water and wastewater utilities in the country, has already spent about $600,000 since Sept. 11 to upgrade security.
WSSC Deputy General Manager Michael Errico, speaking for the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, told the committee that the money is needed to conduct vulnerability assessments and beef up security at treatment plants and reservoirs across the country.
“Our needs are very real and, unfortunately, they are very costly,” Errico said.
Congress last year allocated $90 million in an emergency spending bill to begin assessing the vulnerability of the nation’s water supply to possible terrorist attack.
While Errico acknowledged the funding as a step in the right direction, much more will be needed in coming years for research, assessments, physical improvements and training, he said.
More funding will be needed to help researchers better identify biological and chemical agents, as well as physical improvements, such as fencing around facilities and reservoirs, intruder alert systems and surveillance cameras, Errico said.
The most urgent need is knowledge, said Errico, who asked for $15 million immediately “as an initial investment for water security research, methodologies and technologies that enable us to prevent and respond to terrorist acts.”
He also proposed an additional $2 million be allocated immediately to establish a Water Information Sharing and Analysis Center this year in Washington, D.C.
Officials said the WSSC has begun “to aggressively assess our vulnerabilities.”
WSSC spokeswoman Liz Kalinowski said the 84-year-old commission, based in Laurel, is conducting its own vulnerability study. Kalinowski said once the “fast-track” study is completed later this year, the WSSC would require roughly $15 million for physical improvements.
But Errico could not reveal what exactly they are finding as the study continues.
“For security reasons we cannot elaborate on the specifics of our assessment or our resulting needs at this time,” he said.
It may be difficult to convince all government officials of the need to spend billions to defend drinking water facilities.
At a visit to a WSSC reservoir last year, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman told reporters that contaminating the water supply would be difficult. To taint a reservoir, she said, a terrorist would need more than a tanker truck full of contaminants, which would be nearly impossible to dump even under current security.
Whitman also noted that most water systems are chlorinated, which would help to kill any foreign biological agents.
Kalinowski said all WSSC facilities are under 24-hour watch by armed personnel and that surveillance has increased since Sept. 11.
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