Water Operators Keep Systems Safe From Terrorists

Water systems in America could be a target for terrorists. That's why directors of municipal water plants are taking security seriously.

Several hundred water operators from across Mississippi are at a conference in Biloxi this week.

A terrorist poisoning a city water system could have disastrous consequences. That's why the responsibility of water operators is so significant. They're taking extra steps these days to ensure the security and safety of the water we drink.

Safe drinking water is something most of us take for granted. Keeping municipal systems safe and secure has long been a responsibility for water operators.

But in a post 9-11 world, system safety takes on new meaning.

"It's not enough to have an emergency response plan. You have to exercise it from time to time to insure that everyone knows what to do when the time comes," said Keith Allen, with the Mississippi Department of Health.

Water operators are sharing information at this week's conference. Jimmie Thomas runs the water works in the small town of Tchula, Mississippi. He says being prepared for a terrorist threat is a prudent precaution.

"We deal with things like chlorine and various other chemicals that go in water to make it safe so you might drink it. To make it clean. And so if those chemicals should fall into the wrong hands, we could have big problems," Thomas said.

Waste water plant operators face similar concerns. Keeping chemicals secure is a priority, along with making certain no one tampers with the system.

Nick Gatian is an environmental trainer with the Department of Environmental Quality.

"We don' believe Mississippi is a high priority target. But we are trying to prepare our operators for that by helping them do some vulnerability assessment of their facility. To see what areas they're vulnerable in," he said.

Along with simple security precautions like adequate fencing and padlocks on gates, some communities in Mississippi, especially small towns, are getting neighbors involved in helping keep their water works safe.

"Actually neighborhood watch program is one of the best things. You have a lot of people who live close to water wells. And a lot of these people would be glad to call the water system if they see some type of activity at the well," said Linda Golladay, with the Operators Association.

The EPA has developed many of the new regulations involving safety and security at water plants. The state Department of Health and DEQ are charged with making sure municipalities comply.