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Consumer Reports

Sewers: 800,000 miles of tunnels vulnerable to terror attacks | (KRT) Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, most of the nation's security efforts have focused on large edifices such as airports, skyscrapers and nuclear plants. But experts are beginning to worry about what they say is a serious threat from something so mundane most people rarely think about it: a city sewer system.

America's wastewater systems include some 800,000 miles of tunnels, and they lead to every major building in every city in the country. The passageways also connect to 16,000 wastewater treatment plants, many of which store large amounts of toxic chemicals.

Experts fear the dark, largely unmonitored tunnels could make an inviting transportation network for terrorists.

"Sewer pipes form a vast underground network that can provide a terrorist with access to many public buildings, urban centers, private businesses, residential neighborhoods, military installations and transportation systems," said Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee.

Bud Schardein, executive director of the Metropolitan Sewer District in Louisville, Ky., provided a more direct view. "We have sewers as much as 22 feet in diameter. You could drive a railroad locomotive through there," Schardein said. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out how to get into them. It's a network under every building in the city."

A bill moving through Congress would provide about $200 million to help cities evaluate the vulnerabilities in their wastewater treatment systems. It also would pay for such upgrades as securing sewer entry points and installing video cameras and fences.

Experts, however, say that money is primarily intended to encourage the study of potential weaknesses of wastewater systems, rather than for them to make major upgrades. With so many other security concerns, some worry that wastewater systems are not getting the attention they merit.

A White House strategy issued in February listed municipal waste and drinking water systems among 11 key areas of concern, along with power plants, transportation and emergency services.

"Certainly we are concerned about water treatment plants and wastewater," said Rachel Sunbarger, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security. "It's something that our department definitely thinks about."

The Army issued an urban warfare field manual in 2002 outlining the potential problem. "Sewers, subways, tunnels, cisterns and basements provide mobility, concealment, cover and storage sites for insurgents and terrorists," it says.

Sewers lead to wastewater treatment plants whose sanitary function is critical to the environment and maintaining normal urban life. An attack that cripples a wastewater plant could have catastrophic impact on public health and possibly shut down a city.

Schardein said that while it may be difficult to break into a major building downtown, it could be far easier to slip underneath it with a bomb or a toxic chemical, or to use sewers to move dangerous materials around.

"For centuries, rats have used sewers to go from one point to another without being seen," Schardein said.

With thousand of manholes and other access points, it is impossible to fully secure a sewer system, said Jack Farnan, general superintendent of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. Some cities treat sewer security as a low priority precisely because it's not clear what can be done.

"We probably have at least 150,000 access points" in the Chicago-area sewer system, Farnan said. "Even if you put a policeman on top of every single one, if someone had some kind of material that they wanted to pour into the system and ignite, they wouldn't need to use a public space. All they would need to do is rent a building with a floor drain."

Farnan said most cities are focused on higher-profile targets, including transportation systems, power plants and drinking water facilities.

"The problem is that we don't know what we're looking for," Farnan said. "Everybody is looking in 40 different directions. We're creating a nation of people running off in hysterics."

As part of its homeland security efforts, the Environmental Protection Agency has created a Water Protection Task Force that is working with local officials to figure out how wastewater and drinking water systems may be vulnerable to attack.

Cynthia Dougherty, an EPA official who leads the task force, said the agency wants sewer system operators to identify "the priority points where if something happened it would be catastrophic." She added, "You don't have to secure every inch of the system."

For many cities, Dougherty said, the threat of invasion through sewers is less a concern than the threat of a direct attack on a wastewater treatment plant. Most treatment works store large volumes of chemicals that could be dangerous if detonated.

Rande Wilson of Red Oak Consulting, who advises cities on security issues, said his greatest concern about wastewater systems is strengthening control over chemicals stored at treatment plants, such a chlorine gas, a common but toxic disinfectant.

"On site, if there is a leak, it could be devastating to people who work at the facility or live nearby," Wilson said. Chlorine also could be used as a weapon if it were stolen and released in a building or detonated while in transit through a city, he said.

"It's lethal," Wilson added. "It was used during World War I as a weapon of mass destruction."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services