Water-supply terrorism: How likely is a contamination attack?

Water-supply terrorism: How likely is a contamination attack?

By Berkeley Fife, Staff Contributor

Access to potable water is essential to the health of the human population and to the success of the commercial and industrial economy.  An average person in average temperate conditions can only survive for 100 hours without consuming water.[1]  Direct use of water is essential to major sectors of the economy, including but not limited to: agriculture, power production, energy resource extraction, and mining.[2]  These industries affect other sectors, and the ripple effect of an inability to obtain usable water would be disastrous.[3]  For these reasons, our water supply system is an attractive target for terrorism. The two basic ways to inflict damage on a water supply are either to physically destroy a system’s infrastructure (such as bomb pipes, dams, or treatment plants) or to release a contaminant into the water itself.[4]  The risk of the latter will be the subject of this post.

History is riddled with attacks on water.[5]  In 600 BC, Solon of Athens punished Cirrha for vandalizing a temple of Apollo by putting poison into the local water supply, making the residents violently ill.[6]  In the 14th century, during the siege of Kaffa, Tatar forces threw plague-infested corpses into the city’s water supply.[7]  More recently, terrorist organizations such as the Rajneeshees, Order of the Rising Sun, and the Weather Underground have attempted to contaminate water supplies.[8]  Unlawful manipulation of the water supply has also captivated pop culture and is dramatized in various fictional works, including Batman Begins, V for Vendetta, and Kurt Vonegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

Public officials and the water supply industry express widespread disagreement with respect to how serious a concern water supply terrorism should be.  A successful contamination attempt has concurrently been described as “so easy to do” (former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson), a “scenario [that] cannot happen” (former Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Christie Whitman), and “simply a matter of time.”[9]  The dispute, and apparent uncertainty regarding the risk of an attack can be explained from a risk analysis perspective.  In the most basic terms, a risk management model bases risk of event X on consequence and probability of occurrence of event X.[10] One would be hard pressed to argue that the consequences of a successful attack would not be extraordinarily large.  That being said, the risk of a successful attack is low because the probability of such an attack is low.  Not only are there years of historical evidence of failure, but water has identifiable characteristics that made contamination attacks particularly tricky to carry out.

Though recorded history of water contamination attacks goes back 4500 years ago, the vast majority of attempted attacks have experience varying degrees of failure.[11]  In order for an attack to be successful, the terrorist group must obtain or produce adequate quantities of an agent and conspicuously release it into an appropriate water supply.[12]  The agent must then successfully spread and survive within the supply until it reaches its desired target(s).[13]  This is a multi-step process with many junctures at which the attempted attack may—and normally does—fail.[14]

Some groups failed because they were unable to even acquire or produce the type or quantity of agent desired.  In this case, the attempt fails before the attack even begins.  In the early 1970s, the Weather Underground, a left-wing radical organization, aimed to contaminate urban water supplies in an attempt to overthrow the US government.[15]  Their plan was to blackmail a homosexual officer at the US Army’s bacteriological warfare facility into supplying them a sufficient amount of contaminate.[16]  The group was able to convince the office to cooperate.[17] However, they never obtained possession of the chemicals because the officer raised suspicion when he requested substances unrelated to his line of work.[18]

Other groups were able to acquire or produce their desired agent, but they failed to release the agent into an appropriate water supply.  Just two years after the Weather Underground’s attempt, two teenagers started R.I.S.E. (Reconstruction, Society, and Elimination), an ecoterrorism group.[19]  Their plan was to instigate a waterborne disease attack on a Chicago area water treatment system.[20]  Unlike the Weather Underground, R.I.S.E. was able to obtain plenty of their desired pathogen from a local University lab.[21]  However, these pathogens never entered the water supply.  A few of the group’s new recruits became frightened and went to the police, who arrested the group’s heads before the attack could further unfold.[22]

Finally, some groups were able to both acquire and release contaminants, but were unable to achieve the desired spread.  In 2000, workers at a Cellatex chemical plant became angry because they were denied workers’ benefits they felt they deserved.[23]  When peaceful negotiations were ineffective, the workers dumped 5,000 liters of sulfuric acid into a tributary of the Meuse.[24]  Though the chemical was successfully released into the water, firemen were able to stop the spread before it ever entered the river.[25]  Though this contamination attempt resulted in wasted time, effort, and public funds, the failure to spread to a larger water supply kept the attack from causing serious harm to public health.[26]

In addition to actual case evidence of failure, specific factors have been identified that would presumably make a modern water supply contamination attack particularly tricky.[27]  These safeguards are: (1) dilution; (2) specific inactivation from chlorine or other disinfectants; (3) nonspecific inactivation by hydrolysis, sunlight, and microbes; (4) filtration; and (5) the relatively small quantity of water actually ingested from the tap or other water supply.[28]

The dilution safeguard is simply a result of the sheer amount of water in our systems.  The enormously large volume will presumably reduce the amount of contaminant to which an individual may be exposed—as some say, “dilution is the solution to pollution.”[29]  This defense is strongest at source water locations (rivers, lakes, streams, wells, etc.), which are frequently the largest bodies of water in our system.[30]  This defense is also strong at untreated water storage facilities (dams, reservoirs, and holding tanks), which normally store anywhere from a couple million to several hundred billion gallons of water.[31]  Due to dilution, terrorists might be required to introduce impossibly large quantities of contaminant in order to do any significant damage.

The chemical disinfection and filtration safeguards are a result of water treatment that is applied to most modern water systems and mandated by state or federal regulation.[32]  Chlorination is the most common method of disinfection in the United States.[33]  In fact, the use of chlorine to disinfect drinking water is commonly cited as one of the major public health successes of the 20th century.[34]  Filtration is also highly effective and is used at almost all treatment facilities.[35]

Because of these defenses, it is highly unlikely a terrorist group would be able to “successfully” contaminate a large water supply, even if they were able to produce the contaminants necessary and distribute them into the water system.  However, it is worth noting that terrorists frequently do not have the same motives or goals as that of an organized militia: a terrorist’s main goal may be to inspire fear, rather than to cause mass casualties.[36]  As Brian Jenkins (senior adviser to the president of the RAND corporation) said, “terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.”[37]  This is because the relatively high efficacy of terrorism derives mostly from its symbolic nature.[38]

The “success” of a terrorist attack is measured more by the level of panic created, the extent to which the public’s sense of security is destroyed, and less by the number of deaths incurred.[39]  For example, the impact of the 2001 anthrax attacks is still felt today, more than 15 years later, but Anthrax only actually killed five people.[40]  Because of the discrepancy between U.S. military motives and terrorist motives, it is possible that we are judging the risk of contamination attacks by the wrong standard.

[1]           Dina Spector, Here’s How Many Days a Person Can Survive Without Water, Business Insider (May 9, 2014, 9:36AM), http://www.businessinsider.com/how-many-days-can-you-survive-without-water-2014-5.

[2]           Envtl. Prot. Agency, The Importance of Water to the U.S. Economy ii (2013).

[3]           Id.

[4]           Gleick, supra note 4, at 482.

[5]           See generally Peter Gleick, Water and Terrorism, Water Policy 8, 481 (2006).

[6]           Id. at 485.

[7]           S. C. Clarke, Bacteria as potential tools in bioterrorism, with an emphasis on bacterial toxins, 62 Brit. J. of Biomedical Sci. 40, 42 (2005).

[8]           W. Seth Carus, RISE, the Rajneeshees, Aum Shinrikyo, and Bruce Ivins, in Biological Threats in the 21st Century 171, 172-82 (Filippa Lentzos ed., 2016); Gleick, supra note 4, at 486.

[9]           Press Release, Envtl. Prot. Agency, Whiteman Allays Fear for Water Security; Possibility of Successful Contamination is Small (Oct. 18, 2001) (on file with author); Kevin Coleman, Protecting the Water Supply from Terrorism, Directions Magazine (January 17, 2005), http://www.directionsmag.com/entry/protecting-the-water-supply-from-terrorism/123563; David Franz, et al., Clinical Recognition and management of patients exposed to biological warfare agents, 21 Clin. Lab. Med. 435, 435 (2001).

[10]          See Frederick I. Moxley, et al., Intelligent Adversary Risk Analysis: A Bioterrorism Risk Management Model, 30 Risk Analysis 32 (2010).

[11]          Gleick, supra note 4, at 486-490.

[12]          See generally Gleick, supra note 4.

[13]          Id.

[14]          Id. at 486-490.

[15]          Id. at 496.

[16]          W. C. Mullins, An overview and analysis of nuclear, biological, and chemical terrorism: the weapons, strategies and solutions to a growing problem, 16 Am. J. of Crim. Just. 95 (1992).

[17]          Id.

[18]          Dan Kroll, Securing our Water Supply: Protecting a Vulnerable Resource 23 (2006).

[19]          Carus, supra note, at 172.

[20]          Id. at 174.

[21]          Later investigation showed that the group had quite a large selection, including: Salmonella typhi, Shigella sonnei, Clostridium isolates, and Corynebacterium dephtheriaeId. at 173.

[22]          Id. at 175.

[23]          Gleick, supra note 4, at 488.

[24]          Id.

[25]          Loren Goldner, 2000: Cellatex chemical plant occupation, libcom.org (Sept. 10, 2006, 7:16 PM), https://libcom.org/history/2000-cellatex-chemical-plant-occupation.

[26]          Id.

[27]          Ali S. Khan et al., Precautions Against Biological and Chemical Terrorism Directed at Food and Water Supplies, 116 Pub. Health Rprts. 3, 7.

[28]          Id.

[29]          Jennifer B. Nuzzo, The Biological Threat to U.S. Water Supplies: Toward a National Water Security Policy, 4 Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodef. Strategy, Prac., and Sci. 147, 151 (2006).

[30]          Dan Kroll, The Terrorist Threat to Water and Technology’s Role in Safeguarding Supplies, in International Seminar on Nuclear War and Planetary Emergencies – 45th Session: The Role of Science in the Third Millennium, 371, 376 (R. Ragaini ed., 2012).

[31]          Nuzzo, supra note 25, at 151.

[32]          Id. at 150.

[33]          Matthew J. Arduino, et al., Chlorine Inactivation of Bacterial Bioterrorism Agents, 71 Applied and Envtl. Microbiology, no. 1, 2005, at 566, 566.

[34]          Nuzzo, supra note 25, at 150.

[35]          Id.

[36]          Jeremy Sobel, et al., Threat of a biological terrorist attack on the US food supply: the CDC perspective, 359 The Lancet 874, 874 (2002).

[37]          Kroll, supra note 26, at 371.

[38]          Gleick, supra note 4, at 484.

[39]          Id. at 483; Sobel, supra note 32, at 874.

[40]          H. J. Jansen, et al., Biological warfare, bioterrorism, and biocrime, 20 Clinical Microbiology and Infection 488, 493 (2014).