Chemical Security Bills Would Take Away Local Control

Imagine this scenario. A railcar loaded with chlorine gas is parked on a siding adjacent to a large drinking water treatment plant on the outskirts of metropolitan Houston.

Dec 1st, 2009

By Tom Mills

Imagine this scenario. A railcar loaded with chlorine gas is parked on a siding adjacent to a large drinking water treatment plant on the outskirts of metropolitan Houston. A steady wind is blowing at 12 mph from the south, moving air from the plant into the city itself. Three militant terrorists – you know, the real kind with Taliban connections – have infiltrated the site, one having been recently hired as a security guard at the plant. In the darkness of the pre-dawn hours, explosive devices are placed on the underbelly of the railcar, calibrated to detonate remotely when a cell phone dials up the special 7-digit code of destruction. Immediately outside the plant perimeter and extending 5 miles to the north are over 100,000 vulnerable and unsuspecting residents still fast asleep.

Quick, someone call Jack Bauer! Certainly Chloe O'Brian will be able to access the treatment plant site map on her high powered computer back in Los Angeles, and direct Jack to the device. She will surely be able to bring up the device manufacturer's detailed instructions on how to inactivate the mechanism, preventing the explosion and resulting release of deadly gas into the homes of so many innocent citizens. And, no doubt, she will access the Houston metropolitan security grid, using a series of hidden cameras to locate and follow the terrorists to their lair where Federal agents will mow them down (by accident of course).

Ok, maybe you can tell that I am a fan of the hit FOX series 24. I like the show because it is fiction depicting what could be stretched into a real life scenario for some of our fear-gorged, media overloaded, and gullible American public. Has this happened before? No. Is this likely to happen? No. Is this something more for Americans to worry about? No. Not unless you doubled the size of your investments through the recession and have absolutely nothing else to be concerned over. That pretty much eliminates everyone reading this ridiculous article. Still, there are forces at work that don't believe in the omnipresent capabilities of Jack and Chloe and are taking it upon themselves to put in place legislation that will help to ensure such a scenario never plays out.

In late October the House Committee on Energy and Commerce approved HR3258, the Drinking Water System Security Act of 2009, creating new chemical security requirements for drinking water utilities. The bill requires utilities to analyze "methods to reduce the consequences of a chemical release from an intentional act." It also contains provisions requiring utilities to adopt what the USEPA defines as "inherently safer technology" for water disinfection. For utilities in the highest risk-based tiers, as determined by the EPA, the bill essentially moves the ultimate decision-making authority for which disinfection technology is employed at these plants to the federal authority. AWWA fought to keep such authority at a local level but lost the battle.

Under existing law, no federal agency may regulate security at water and wastewater treatment facilities. However, with this new legislation, water and wastewater facilities will get lumped into existing Homeland Security standards established in 2007 to assess and reduce risk of terrorism at chemical plants; the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS). As CFATS is set to expire, the House has put forward another bill, the Homeland Security Appropriations Act (H.R. 2892) to extend CFATS for another year while a broader version of the original act is introduced; H.R. 2868, the Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Act of 2009.

Together, these bills would move water and wastewater facilities into the category of chemical plants and subject them to the same level of risk assessment along with federal jurisdiction. Before these bills can become law they will require similar action, support and compromise from the Senate. While this may not happen quickly by commercial standards, there is momentum and support in Congress and we could see law passed within the next year. At issue is a further shift of control from local and state hands to the federal level.

Certainly, the interests and concerns for local communities have to be at the forefront of decisions made by the local utilities. Is the federal government better equipped to balance the risk of terrorism against the risk associated with selecting the best, most effective treatment technology - more so than those who built and operate these facilities? Is this in the best interests of the community and the taxpayer or is it simply another move to strengthen authority and grow what is an already bloated federal government? Quite frankly, I am very skeptical.

As long as I have Jack and Chloe to stimulate and fulfill my need for intrigue and high-risk suspense, I don't feel the need to spend my time worrying about real terrorists releasing chlorine at a water treatment plant. Long live 24! WW


About the Author:
Tom Mills is Immediate-Past Chairman of WWEMA and Vice President of Severn Trent Services, a supplier of water and wastewater treatment solutions, with global headquarters in Fort Washington, PA.

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