Has the Public Health and Bioterrorism Act of 2002 significantly changed the way water utilities conduct their operations?

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Without a doubt the answer to this question is yes. Since September 11th, the very nature of how security is approached pertaining to physical water infrastructure and quality protection has changed.

Under the security measures of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 law, all large water utilities in the United States must now conduct a vulnerability assessment (VA) that includes assessing the potential for terrorist threats to the water supply. The assessment itself and capital outlay to meet VA recommendations is driving up the cost of public water supplies and also causing substantial changes in policies and procedures.

The President has given the EPA the primary responsibility for facilitating the protection of the water sector, including drinking water systems. The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 required community water systems serving more than 3,300 people to develop vulnerability assessments and certify emergency response plans. With the compliance deadlines for these requirements have passed and most of this work now complete, the focus of EPA’s water security program has shifted from the identification of vulnerabilities to the reduction of risks associated with these vulnerabilities. The program will provide the tools and assistance that the sector needs to prevent, detect, respond to, and recover from intentional acts and natural disasters.

For example, the EPA will aggressively promote the 14 features of an active and effective water security program as developed by the National Drinking Water Advisory Council, in addition to initiating efforts to measure progress within the sector with respect to risk reduction. The EPA will also encourage mutual aid agreements within states and regions. The EPA will continue to provide training and exercises to improve the preparedness of the nation’s water utilities. The EPA also will undertake two significant initiatives:

  • (1) the Water Sentinel program, which will deploy and test a contamination warning system; and
  • (2) the Water Alliance for Threat Reduction, which will provide direct water security training to drinking water utilities serving more than 100,000 people.

Specifically, the President requires the EPA to

  • Protect the vulnerability assessments submitted by drinking water systems, as well as any information in them, while in EPA's possession.
  • Provide information on potential adversarial actions that could threaten the nation's water supply systems, as well as strategies and responses that utilities should consider while conducting their assessments.
  • Conduct research studies in areas relevant to water security.

In many cases, water utility employees have now been trained to handle policemen and security duties as well as their regular duties. They may be expected to conduct security patrols and change their work habits. Facility tours, open houses, and special media days have decreased. Trespassing and vandalism incidents that were once viewed mostly as acts of pranksters are now taken more seriously as possible terrorist attacks or attempts to poison the water supply.

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