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Threat to US Water Systems

Guardians of U.S. drinking water remain on full alert more than a week after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. And that may not change anytime soon. ?We have advised all utilities to be on alert and cautious,? says Tom Curtis, the deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association, or AWWA. ?We are not responding to a specific threat advisory from the FBI concerning water utilities, but we have advised water utilities to be on a heightened state of alert.? Utility officials won?t talk about specific security steps, but will say only that safety measures have been put in place indefinitely. ?We?ve taken a number of steps as precautions, but we?ve chosen not to make those measures public,? says Trina McGuire-Collier, a spokeswoman for Denver?s municipal water utility. Officials insist they are not expecting anyone to sabotage drinking water with poison or biological weapons. They?re just being cautious side, says Christian Hawley, a spokeswoman for the American Water Works Association.

Water utilities for major metropolitan areas quickly switched into high-security mode after terrorists piloted airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Smaller water companies are still working to increase security.

The Washington Aqueduct, operated by the Army Corps of Engineers as the major supplier of water to the nation?s capital, is, like all utilities, checking water supplies carefully as a precautionary measure. ?We are ... looking for anything out of the norm,? says Tom Jacobus, the aqueduct?s general manager. ?To test for something, you have to know to look for it. You can?t test for every possible contaminant. But we believe we can evaluate the water in a way that keeps it safe for customers.?

After the plane crashes, law enforcement agencies across the country were dispatched to dams, water-treatment plants and reservoirs as added security. Some halted all nearby foot and vehicle traffic. In May, the American Water Works Association sent out a checklist of security guidelines, which included such basic advice as: lock doors, invite local police to become familiar with facilities and fence in vulnerable areas. Smaller water districts, particularly in rural areas, often don?t have the money to do much more, such as hire extra guards.

?We have a lot on our plate with just trying to regulate the systems before this attack,? says Clark Bruner of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. ?So we don't have the manpower or personnel to stop everything and divert all [our resources] to terrorist control.?

It should be noted that, while there have been internet rumors and ?prophecies? about terrorists putting anthrax into water supplies, it would not be an effective weapon if delivered in water. Anthrax forms hard spores which are breathed in and would only be lethal if sprayed into the air, and then only within a small area. Anthrax is not passed from person to person.

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