Congress Exempts Water Utilities from Chemical Security Rules

Before recessing for the November elections, Congress approved a measure that exempted water and wastewater utilities from a federal mandate for tougher chemical plant site security.

Before recessing for the November elections, Congress approved a measure that exempted water and wastewater utilities from a federal mandate for tougher chemical plant site security.

Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, insisted that the measure exclude water and wastewater facilities from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program.

The measure, written into the $35 billion, fiscal 2007 DHS appropriations bill, would permit the department to shut down chemical plants that fail to comply with the yet-to-be-determined federal security standards.

Congressional leaders used an appropriations bill because stand-alone chemical security bills had stalled in both houses. The measure would apply to chemical production, storage and transfer sites.

As with water utilities, plant operators would be required to conduct vulnerability assessments and draw up security plans to resolve deficiencies. DHS would approve those plans.

Water utilities were concerned that since many use hazardous chemicals such as chlorine gas, they might have to duplicate vulnerability assessments and emergency response plans mandated by the 2002 Bioterrorism Act. Many wastewater systems not covered by that law have complied voluntarily.

Water and wastewater systems have protested that they should not be subjected to DHS security regulations intended for chemical facilities because they have been working on security actions under EPA’s enforcement of requirements to prevent the accidental releases of hazardous chemicals.

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) and a number of other water groups lobbied Congress for the exemption.

At AWWA’s annual Water Security Congress in Washington, D.C., Robert Stephan, the DHS Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection, praised utilities for working to improve the protection of infrastructure from terrorism and natural disasters.

Stephan said that terrorists still might attempt to strike U.S. water infrastructure or supplies to instill fear and damage the economy. He said terrorists are paying close attention to the effects of their attacks on water infrastructure in Iraq.

He said DHS’ recently completed National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP) provides comprehensive risk management framework that defines infrastructure protection roles for all level of governments and industries.

Benjamin Grumbles, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Assistant Administrator for water, advocated an “all hazards approach” to water security that includes both natural and man-made threats.

Grumbles noted that water utilities have demonstrated an increasing interest in intrastate mutual aid agreements to help assuring effective emergency responses to natural disasters or terrorist attacks. He said EPA’s Water Sentinel Initiative also would develop a water monitoring and surveillance system for potential contaminants.

At a House hearing in October, Grumbles said water systems serving more than 230 million people have completed their critical assessments of vulnerability to terrorist attack.

He testified before the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Environment and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee.

Grumbles said, “Despite this success, EPA continues to work to ensure that we receive all vulnerability assessments and emergency response plan certifications so that all of the nation’s community water systems serving more than 3,300 people reach the same critical milestone.”

Title IV of the 2002 Bioterrorism Act requires water systems to prepare vulnerability assessments and prepare or revise emergency response plans incorporating the results of the assessments. To assist the water systems, the law authorized financial assistance to conduct the assessments, prepare response plans and address basic security enhancements and significant threats.

Grumbles said EPA has received assessments and emergency response plan certifications from the nation’s largest systems, 98% of the assessments and 89% of the certifications from medium-sized water systems and 88% of the assessments from the smallest systems.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the full committee, said, “While recognizing our drinking water systems’ vulnerabilities is an important accomplishment, we also need to determine whether there are appropriate security measures in place that address vulnerabilities and mitigate the consequences of any attack.”

CDC Reports on Perchlorate

The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported that traces of perchlorate -- a toxic rocket fuel chemical - found in milk, fruit, vegetables and drinking water supplies nationwide can lower essential thyroid hormones in women.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) said 44 million American women who are pregnant, thyroid deficient or have low iodine levels are at heightened risk from exposure to the chemical.

The CDC study found that perchlorate exposure is affecting thyroid hormone levels in women, particularly those with lower iodide intake. CDC researchers analyzed urine samples from more than 1,100 women for perchlorate, and then looked to see if perchlorate exposure could predict thyroid hormone levels. They found a statistically significant relationship between perchlorate levels as low as 3 parts per billion -- about one teaspoon of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool -- and one type of thyroid hormone for all women, and an even more marked relationship between perchlorate levels and two types of thyroid hormones in women with lower iodine intake. It said 36% of U.S. women have iodine intake that falls into this category.

EWG urged EPA to set a drinking water standard of no more than 0.1 parts per billion of perchlorate -- almost 250 times more stringent than the current federal recommendation for cleanup of contaminated water, and 20 to 60 times stricter than standards set by Massachusetts and pending in California and New Jersey.

It also urged the Food and Drug Administration to consider making the iodization of salt mandatory, because insufficient iodide in a diet can compound perchlorate’s health effects.

The Department of Defense use most U.S. perchlorate production to make solid rocket and missile fuel. Smaller amounts are also used in fireworks and road flares. Perchlorate was also widely used in certain types of fertilizer in the early part of the 20th century.

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