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Water security regulation compliance

Security at water and wastewater treatment plants has always been of concern to utility operators, but the level of concern in recent years has been magnified by terrorist-related activities around the world.


Security at water treatment plants (WTPs) and wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) has always been of concern to utility operators, but the level of concern in recent years has been magnified by terrorist-related activities around the world.

Although water and wastewater systems as a whole continue to enjoy a track record of safety both for human health and the environment, municipal and business leaders are taking heed of government water safety initiatives and bolstering their security-related planning and infrastructure.

This white paper explores the types of security issues that could impact virtually any WTP or WWTP, and how effective use of software solutions can help to prevent security risks from being carried out as well as improving responses to security events.

The changing nature of security risks

The purposeful human contamination of water sources is certainly not a 21st century construct with which water treatment operators and engineers are just now being confronted, but the reality of the 21st century places strong emphasis on terrorist activity that would purposefully contaminate a municipal water system.

Indeed, measures in the United States such as the Homeland Security Presidential Directive 9 and Environmental Protection Agency's Water Security initiative focus heavily on criminal human activity, whether by an individual or organised group, that is aimed at widespread harm through contamination of this essential element of social existence.

The overarching issue of water security, it must be remembered, also must include contamination or treatment capacity reduction from a wide variety of natural means as well as the artifacts of economic and residential development, breakdowns in infrastructure and malicious activity by thoughtless individuals such as adolescents who hardly would qualify as terrorists.

Examples of these more traditional and widespread threats to the integrity of WTPs include:

  • fence or building break-ins that could lead to stolen property
  • nitrate contamination by septic tanks
  • leaking underground storage tanks (LUST)
  • fertiliser, pesticide and animal waste runoff from farms
  • mobilisation of contaminant ions by stepped-up production well drawdown
  • leaking sewerage infrastructure
  • hurricanes
  • tornadoes
  • heavy precipitation events or rapid snowmelt
  • algal blooms and infestations by Cryptosporidium, Giardia and other pathogens
  • forest and grassland fires that not only directly threaten facilities but also can create water-polluting runoff of firefighting chemicals, soil and ash

WWTPs, almost by definition, are located at the lowest point of a community to take advantage of gravity flow in the collection system. As such, it is not uncommon for WWTPs to be overwhelmed by stormwater during precipitation events or completely flooded when nearby streams overtop their banks.

Due to the criticality of safe drinking water and treated effluent, any type of security threat can have long-lasting impact on humans, aquatic and even terrestrial species, surface water and aquifers. Intentional security breaches of WTPs could, of course, result in acute risk to human health or even deaths.

The illegal disposal of hazardous materials to collection systems, though not intended as a terrorist act, could pose a threat to wastewater treatment processes, which in turn could put operators at risk as well as cause noncompliant effluent to be discharged from the facility that would pose an acute threat to human health and environmental safety.

Conversely, the risks to human health by natural causes are often chronic in form as a result of slow uptake of low levels of contaminants in the drinking water: the inability of cells to take up oxygen due to nitrification of drinking water; relatively slow absorption of natural contaminants such as arsenic or fluoride; and the slow uptake of low concentrations of heavy metals, pesticides and other induced toxic substances.

An emerging area of concern in the water treatment arena is the effect of prescription medications that pass through conventional water treatment processes.

As more and more drugs are disposed of into wastewater collection systems, often on the advice of the medical community itself, some researchers are finding increasingly harmful effects on aquatic species and raising concerns about the chemicals' impact on human health.

Few treatment facilities truly safe from risks With such a wide range of potential security threats, virtually any WTP or WWTP, regardless of size, is susceptible to some level of risk.

Some facilities, such as water treatment and storage assets in large metropolitan areas, will certainly be higher value targets for terrorist risk, but no facility should be considered safe from security threats, whether natural or human-caused.

Security risks can be expected to vary due to a variety of factors, including:

  • the size of the water or wastewater treatment facility
  • whether the utility is public or private
  • the number and type (surface or ground) of potable water sources
  • the number and type of industrial dischargers to wastewater treatment plants
  • the type of treatment processes involved
  • geographic location of treatment facilities

Many large water and wastewater utilities have done much already to prevent and prepare for security breach events, often as part of an overarching municipal or corporate security initiative.

The Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 mandates that all U.S. systems with service populations greater than 3,300 are required to prepare an in-depth vulnerability assessment (VA) that examines security risk potential as well as an emergency response plan (ERP) based on the findings of the VA.

The Act also requires technological modifications to provide perimeter and appurtenance control, prevent loss of electrical power and communications capabilities and ensure that critical at-risk mechanical assets such as lift stations are not damaged by sudden system stresses.

Conversely, many small facilities are still without VAs and ERPs to provide the planning and guidance needed to make anything more than a seat-of-the-pants response to any given security risk.

Whether to bolster an existing security program or to launch one from scratch, one effective means is to leverage the\ wealth of electronic data available in virtually every treatment and distribution system by means of process and operations automation software systems.

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