Annapolis Water plans terrorism defense

Terrorists plotting half a world away may not have Annapolis Water District at the top of their priority list, but water officials are still planning to make sure their facilities are never an easy target for those bent on mass destruction.

Under a bioterrorism act passed not long after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York, every water district large enough to present a serious target must prepare a study by June 30 outlining the utility’s vulnerabilities and how officials will counteract those weaknesses.

Sewer districts are not included in the mandate — probably because it’s harder to cripple a community by disabling its toilets.

“They’re not as worried about sewer,” said Bill Huntington, who serves as a commissioner for both Annapolis and Karcher Creek Sewer District. “They figure terrorists will hit the water supply.”

The analysis, which must adhere to a strict set of government guidelines, takes in everything from the district’s files to its employees to its pipes and storage tanks. Annapolis district engineer Chuck Mayhew, who is overseeing the process, said in the end district employees will have probably spent more than 2,000 man-hours on the project.

“It’s very involved,” he said.

It’s also very hush-hush, Mayhew said. Although the district’s staff and commissioners will see the report, very few people outside the organization ever will. Even the Environmental Protection Agency, which is required to have a copy of the study, will not read it, he said.

The reason for the secrecy, Mayhew said, is obvious.

“In it, we identify all of our weaknesses,” he explained. “If someone had access to it, they’d have a road map of how to hurt us.”

The measures the district will use to counteract its weaknesses are not all so confidential, though.

Mayhew said after the district submits its report, it has six months to come up with — and implement — a plan to manage and reduce its vulnerability.

He said he’s waiting until the last minute to submit the vulnerability review to give the district the maximum amount of time to launch its countermeasures — the clock doesn’t start ticking until the analysis is in.

However, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t already started work on the anti-terror plan.

Some threats, he said, are pretty obvious and don’t require complicated solutions. A few years ago, Mayhew said, a young man with a gun wandered unchallenged into a water commissioners’ meeting and robbed the attendees.

Although the robbery was not a terrorist act, he said, keeping the district safe from everyday criminals and vandals is a big part of the vulnerability study.

Surveillance cameras and/or 911 panic buttons, had they been in place at the time, could potentially have prevented the crime.

Instituting a buddy system, Mayhew added, could do a lot to protect district employees working late at night in remote areas.

In all, the safety and security improvement recommendations Mayhew expects will result from the study should be inexpensive enough to implement without putting a strain on the district’s finances.

“I think we’ll be able to do almost all of our improvements over the next couple of years,” he said.

Ironically enough, the biggest threat may come from within the district itself. Disgruntled employees, Mayhew explained, are the No. 1 perpetrator of criminal acts against utilities and the hardest to defend against. Not only do district insiders know how to access most of the major elements in the water system, they also will know where and how they can cause the most damage.

Despite the thoroughness of the analyses and studies now being done, Mayhew said there may be no way to fully protect against angry employees.

“If someone really wants to hurt us, there’s not much we can do to stop them,” he said. “Fortunately, we’ve got a really good crew right now.”

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