GAO Examines Security at Wastewater Utilities

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported that wastewater utilities have made important upgrades to security...

Jun 1st, 2006

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported that wastewater utilities have made important upgrades to security, but further progress will be limited by costs and other constraints.

GAO said wastewater facilities may possess certain characteristics that terrorists could exploit to impair the wastewater treatment process or to damage surrounding infrastructure.

“For example, large underground collector sewers could be accessed by terrorists for purposes of placing destructive devices beneath buildings or city streets,” the report said.

The congressional agency said federal law does not address wastewater security as comprehensively as it does drinking water security. For example, the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 required drinking water facilities serving populations greater than 3,300 to complete vulnerability assessments, but no such requirement exists for wastewater facilities.

GAO said its survey of more than 200 of the nation’s large wastewater facilities shows that many have made security improvements since 9/11 and most indicated they have completed, have under way, or plan to complete some type of security assessment.

The agency said other security measures taken after 9/11 have generally focused on controlling access to the treatment plant through improvements in visual surveillance, security lighting, and employee and visitor identification.

“Little effort, however, has been made to address collection system vulnerabilities, as many facilities cited the technical complexity and expense involved in securing collection systems that cover large areas and have many access points,” the report said.

GAO said EPA and the Department of Homeland Security have initiatives to address wastewater facility security but their efforts would benefit from closer coordination.

The Senate Environment and Public Works may consider legislation this year to require wastewater utilities to complete vulnerability assessments but action in the House of Representatives is uncertain.

The report, Securing Wastewater Facilities (GAO-06-390), can be found on the agency’s website at www.gao.gov.

Gulf Wastewater Utilities Still Struggling to Recover

A new report shows that wastewater utilities are struggling to find an estimated $1.4 billion needed to repair and rebuild systems damaged by Hurricane Katrina last year, as well as to replace lost revenues due to a reduction in population.

The report was a joint effort between the Water Environment Federation (WEF) and Black & Veatch Corp. They sent the report to congressional committees, EPA, and the Department of Agriculture.

The report said most of the damage to wastewater utilities was in surge zones and those utilities could face a prolonged period of insufficient funding to maintain essential public health infrastructure and meet long-term debt obligations.

“The study originated from a general lack of attention paid to the wastewater industry in response to and recovery from a major disaster,” said Jim Clark, vice president of Black & Veatch. “Our goal was to produce a high-level cost assessment that can be used as a basis for assessing the need for reconstruction funding and financial support.”

Black & Veatch said 118 wastewater utilities serving 1.8 million people were affected by Hurricane Katrina. A sample group of 25 utilities was assessed for infrastructure damage.

The company estimated the total cost assessment to repair and rebuild wastewater collection and treatment plant infrastructure was about $1.2 billion. In addition, an estimated $163 million will be needed by the wastewater utilities to maintain financial solvency and critical infrastructure because of the impact on revenue of the reduced population in their service areas.

Ed McCormick, chairman of the WEF’s peer review committee, said, “Successfully rebuilding communities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama depends on the availability of basic sanitation services provided by wastewater utilities. Investment in the Gulf Coast region’s wastewater infrastructure must be a top priority.”

USGS Examines VOC Contamination

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has reported that the occurrence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in ground water and drinking-water supply wells does not appear to be a serious problem.

Volatile organic compounds are produced in large volumes and are associated with a myriad of products, such as plastics, adhesives, paints, gasoline, fumigants, refrigerants, and dry-cleaning fluids.

USGS detected VOCs in aquifers across the nation but said VOCs were not detected in most of the sampled wells: about 80% had no detections above a threshold of 0.2 parts per billion (ppb). VOCs were detected in some domestic and public-supply wells, but seldom at concentrations greater than EPA regulatory or USGS health-based guidelines.

The agency said once released, VOCs tend to persist in the environment and migrate in ground water, potentially to drinking-water supply wells. Some VOCs are of concern because of their potential carcinogenicity or other health effects, and because they can change the taste and odor of drinking water.

The USGS analyzed ground-water samples from nearly 3,500 wells distributed randomly across broad regions and representing 98 aquifer studies. The study characterized large-scale resource occurrence of VOCs, and was not designed to evaluate localized VOC contamination of ground water, such as at landfills and leaking underground storage tanks.

USGS said VOCs were detected in 14% of private and 26% of public drinking water supply wells, but less than 2% had concentrations that were greater than federal drinking-water standards. Those mostly were for the solvents perchloroethene (PCE) and trichloroethene (TCE), and the agricultural fumigant dibromochloropropane (DBCP).

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