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Chemical Attack on La Verne Treatment Plant Research Paper

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Updated: Mar 3rd, 2022


The concern of the security of infrastructure following the September 2001 terrorist attacks brought to the forefront the safety matters in all government facilities, including water plants. In that regard, bringing security concerns in protecting vital resources became a concern for La Verne, California water treatment plant as well. Such concern specifically increased after the plant was among 37 plants listed nationwide as susceptible to a terrorist attack. This paper is focused on discussing security concerns of L a Verne water plant, the way an attack may be carried out, the best time that the terrorists are most likely to choose, the chemicals that are likely to be used and the means that might be used in preventing the attack.

Analysis of La Verne Water Treatment Plant

There are several aspects that can go wrong involving a terrorist attack on such a huge water catchment. To begin with, the reason why the Water Plant was listed as susceptible to terrorist attack at first place should be mentioned. The reason is based on the fact that the plant uses “deadly chlorine gas that is transported in unprotected rail cars”, which in case of an attack can “jeopardize millions of nearby residents” (2). Accordingly, in case of the failure of plant, the terrorist can affect the water supply quantities making it difficult for the plant to satisfy the demands of the residents of Los Angeles and Orange counties (6).

Although Weymouth Treatment Plant at La Verne is one of five filtration plants serving the Metropolitan water system, the plant is among the largest in the United States, and thus the consequences for water supply shortage, where terrorists attack might affect water pressure in the plant so that storage and distribution can be impossible, might affect many sectors such as health, agriculture and economics

Weymouth Treatment Plant at La Verne has strived to improve their security immensely since September 11, 2001. However, up until 2007, when the plant was added to the list of targets susceptible to terrorism, the security concerns might not have been fully addressed. Therefore, when speculating a possible attack, it would be most likely occur in the less secured areas (Osterholm & Schwartz p.14).

La Verne physical layout

The first factor to consider for La Verne water treatment plan can be seen in its strategic importance. The plant delivers up to 520 million gallons per day (6). Accordingly, the level of impact implies all the areas which are dependant on such great reserve of water. The location of the water plant is an additional factor, where “A fairly small number of large drinking water and wastewater utilities located primarily in urban areas (about 15% of the systems) provide water services to more than 75% of the U.S. population” (4). In that regard, such facilities represent the greatest target for terrorist, although small systems cannot be excluded (4).

Additionally, as previously stated, the fact of transporting chlorine adds up to the risk and the damage that can be caused, in case the facility is attacked. In that regard, it can be assumed that in the case of a water plant such as the located in La Verne, the terrorist has more options to implement, where in case of a failure of one option, e.g. cutting the water supply, another option might work out, gas spread to the nearby areas. These are some factors that need to be considered when analyzing a terrorist attack La Verne Water Treatment Plant (Osterholm & Schwartz p.61).

Terrorist attack process

A terrorist attack can concentrate on making the water unsafe for use either using chemicals to poison the water or interfering with the plant’s infrastructure. Additionally, taking the perspective of gas transportation, the attack might be directed toward destroying the transport rails. These three possible types of terrorist attack on the water treatment plant can further be analyzed using the possible ways of implanting; meaning that they can be physical destruction, chemical contamination, and backflow and cyber attack.

Physical destruction is believed to be the most possible attack when compared to contamination event. Terrorist view that physical destruction would cause more harmful consequent and it would be prolonged. As an example interfering with water flow and pressure will affect the efficiency of firefighters and water consumers. Physical destruction can be in many forms; in La Verne plant bacteria infection and water pollution can be classified as physical destruction as they affect water flow and freshness which are essential for domestic water consumption. Destruction of vital equipments using explosives and infrastructure supporters such as arson, power sources and injury of personnel can also be expected.

In most cases guns and explosives are easier to use as they can easily interfere with efficiently of large machines. Thus, physical destruction which has a higher rate of occurrence relates to affecting system component operations, power sources or interdependent infrastructure, supervisory control and data systems and also containers essential for water treatments (Krouse p.36).

Another major concern brought about physical destruction is that terrorists can develop a wide water hammer that dictates the opening and closing of major control valve too rapidly. Changing the cycle of opening and closing of water valves may cause water over flow to the plant or to the consumers. This act can be a major crisis not only to the plant but also other departments such as the fire fighters. Closing water valves using the hammer will affect pressure of water further, reducing its supply causing the government to incur losses due to tax reduction; several taxable industries require water for them to operate therefore, by affecting their production their tax level with consequently decline.

Water shortage will also affect utility of staff and public works personnel which will be cause disaster such as unemployment and staff handling situations over time. Terrorists can also use Chlorine and other hazardous chemicals that are used in water treatment process to implement their attack, this can be possible during transportation or on unsecured areas of the plant. Terrorists can decide to release chlorine gas into the residential water supplies or reduce chlorine essential for water treatment; this will cause undermining disinfection process, as well as the consequences implied by the spread of gas to nearby areas.

Chemical contamination or bioterrorism is defined as massive contamination by microbiological agent. But chemical contamination can also be by toxic chemical which is also considered as a mass destruction. Though the US Air Force has implemented policies to inspect disinfection in water and testing contamination it is not possible to monitor all water valve exists and sewage reservoir. This therefore, may be used by terrorists to attack specific industries and institutions such as animal farms. Chemical contamination may also be in form of WMD which is a biological agent produced mass casualties, it arises aerosol form of damage.

This WMD related contamination may be structured to occur through air interior space, this is the kind of contamination that terrorist attack in Tokyo subway in 1995. After the Tokyo subway attack FBI’s designed a system for checking water toxicity and other common malicious acts by terrorists, but this system still has major loop holes as stated b y University Hygienic Laboratory, the university stated that the FBI check system fails to monitor waterborne agent of bioterrorism or low infectious dose. This is an easy target for terrorists who would like to impose a gastrointestinal disease to a population.

Centers for disease Control and Prevention are now focusing their research on waterborne viability and resistance to disinfection such as hemorrhagic fever viruses and anthrax. This excessive concentration has made it possible to make attacks based on drinking water systems, interference with quality required and cultural activities relating to water preparation. Chemical contamination is mainly in “dilution of solutions” advance detection techniques and equipments are required, but they are not available at all water storage and distribution areas.

Most of these chemical contamination related diseases are prevented through vaccines and antidotes, terrorists can decide to attack by ensuring these vaccines are not useful any more such that they are either too weak to suppress or prevent the diseases or they are not available at all. For instance, La Verne water treatment plant assists health centers and hospitals in acquiring the proper vaccines to prevent disease, by coming up with a strategy to hinder their efforts of providing adequate and sufficient vaccines the public and all water consumers will be at a risk.

Backflow is another possible attack that terrorists can use to attack the La Verne Water Treatment Plant, where it refers to foam that reduces pressure in distribution systems. Back flow system is installed in every public water system to assist in preventing hydraulics and access to any harmful chemicals or toxic contamination which could cause serious damage to both human health and ozone. Terrorists can also affect the laid down backflow systems by interfering with distribution reservoirs and fire hydrants.

Damages relating to backflow have been noted in fire truck pump where malicious opening of aqueous fire fighting foam is released while the fire truck pump is still closed. According to Charlotte Mecklenburg the case in United States where fire fighting foam caused more damage than the actual fire since 60 gallons of foam where released to a small neighborhood apartment was related to a terrorist attack. This proves that terrorist can easily interfere with water pressure to cause an attack.

Why night is the best time

Cyber attack is a terrorist attack that affects infrastructure network. According to US Environmental Protection Agency inferring with water infrastructure network will jeopardize water storage, disinfecting and distribution. However, terrorist can still find a way of hacking into the system and these could result in theft of essential information, corruption of information, disclosure and perhaps worse extreme such as service denial. It may be argued that this important information relating to water treatment and supply is safe as it is not connected to the internet, but truth is that terrorists can use disgruntled employees or databases in personal computers (Berger p.29).

With September 2001 attack occurring at day, it can be assumed that for that attack of the Water treatment pant the terrorist will choose night for such attack, due to the fact that the intended consequences would be harmful the most after the attack itself. Accordingly, making a parallel with 2001 attack, a major part of damage was inflicted by the attack itself, while in the case of a water plant attack the damage will be done afterwards, and thus, the later the news will spread the more damage can be caused.

In such way, considering that the news of the incident along with the precautions for the citizens regarding the water, will be known only by morning in the surrounding areas. Additionally, categorizing terrorists the type of damage that can be caused that such terrorist might be state sponsored, or as in Al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization, where for instance, United States enemies may desire to impose a terrorist attack on United States due to the existing grudge (Hughes p.112).

Possible ways to prevent such an attack

To prevent such an attack in to the La Verne Water treatment, plant several factors have already been put to place, but also other improvements to the existing measures should be done. The National Security Council in 1998 improved infrastructure protection for water supply all over the country by providing funding to develop vulnerability assessment of different methodology. The Critical Infrastructure Protection Advisory Group (CIPAG) held meeting on January 2001 and improved technical support for water associations and federal agencies. The group believed that by encouraging unity and open discussions will reduce tension and desire for revenge which would consequently reduce the desire for terrorist attacks.

The government in general, different groupings and federations have taken measures to prevent terrorist attacks on water plants in general these measures can easily be categorized in five major forms. The first category relates to information sharing where assistance centers have been established to investigate and also hold open discussions on water supply sector. Information sharing has also been improved through developing secure transmission of threat information and any other delicate data. The second category is providing guidance documents that provide the process of how to protect a facility against attack.

The government and other security related firms have ensured these reading materials are available to all firms that need them but most of them have not paid any attention to them. The guidance documents provide information to firms on how to prevent an attack, how to respond and overcome attack consequences. Further, cooperative meetings are organized by US chamber and critical Infrastructure Assurance Office the Water Treatment Plant can begin with attending these meetings since they assist in assessing how well a firm’s infrastructure can handle a terrorist attack.

It should be mentioned that the security plan should pay attention to the physical protection, as mentioned in the Water treatment operator handbook, where the terrorists might take actions “to damage or contaminate the water supply or sabotage system infrastructure and the electric transmission system” (10). In that regard, controlling the physical ace to the facility is a major concern that should be taken care of.

The fourth category that the National Security Council and federal government have implemented to reduce terrorist attacks are on national infrastructure. Improving national infrastructure such as assurance plan for water sector has assisted different plants to improve their security systems; however, La Verne Plant not fully taken this advantage into full use since it has not recruited enough security infrastructure and labor force on matter of security.

Training activities have also been adequately provided on how to prevent, handle and cope with a terrorist attack. The plant attended several training seminars and classes organized by the countries security council, but when analyzing how well it can cope with a chemical and physical attack we can clearly see that the plants personnel is not equipped with the right skills to cope with an actual attack. Actually, we can easily assume that the training activities where not practical enough for the plant’s employee to learn from.

To prevent the attack in La Verne Water Treatment Plant ensuring information confidentiality would be another factor to consider as an addition to utilizing what the National Security Council outlined. Information confidentiality will mean that the plant should ensure the public and employees who are not trusted do not get access to confidential information. Further, the plant should prevent the attack by ensuring its database is in accordance with the state Freedom of Information Act laws which allows agencies to withhold information that could endanger the physical safety or life of any individual, protecting water supply is clearly in accordance with the laws since it assists protecting the thousands of people who are water consumers.

To assist in limiting access of information the plant can use codes or passwords and besides ensure they browse specific data. Thus, combining the factors of physical security with confidentiality, the establishment of access system based on privileges should ensure that not only the access would be controlled, but also this access can be personified for identification of people entering certain areas in the facility.

La Verne Water Treatment Plants can prevent the attack by preparing proper strategies on redundancy of operations, public notification, proper communication channel, media response and emergency water supply that could assist in providing supply incase of chemical contamination. These plans if laid down and understood by all plants departments can assist in preventing an attack since it becomes easier to detect an attack on time before it’s actually implemented or before serious consequences result.

Conclusion and summary

There is a raised concern for the security of the infrastructure, specifically such strategic facilities as water treatment systems. The way the terrorist might inflict damage can be dependant on the characteristics of the water plant. The factors of related to La Verne water plant make it an ideal target for such attack. Such factors include the location, the output of the facility and the transportation of hazardous gas.

Accordingly, the physical attack can be seen as the most dangerous, and the most possible compared to other attacks. In the case of such attack, night can be chosen as a possible time for attack, as the consequences can be greatly increased. In terms, of protection, it can be stated that the physical protection of the facility is a major priority for the plant, in addition to maintaining confidentiality on the information.

It can be concluded that it is essential to revise security related issues one in a while. This makes it difficult to plan a completely successful attack against a plant. In addition, changing security personnel can also be a good step to take. Humans can at times be easily compromised; changing personnel will assist in bringing to light any hidden activities to the table. However, when doing a reshuffle, it is also essential to avoid making delicate information known to too many persons, therefore, changing codes and passwords may be highly advised.


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  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Worksheet”. Journal of Critical Biological Agents for Public Health Preparedness (1999).142:3-6.
  4. Copeland, Claudia. ““. 2009. Congressional Research Service. Web.
  5. Cox, Roberts. Vandals Pollute Grass Valley Water Supply. Two Teens Held. London: The Sacramento Bee (1999).
  6. “F.E. Weymouth Treatment Plant”. 2009. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Web.
  7. Hughes, Hadgraft. “Statement before the Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism, and Government Information Subcommittee on Youth Violence Committee on the Judiciary US Senate” (1999).
  8. Krouse, Winer. “Backflow Incident Sparks Improvements”. Opflow. Vol. 27, No. 2.(2001).
  9. Osterholm, and Schwartz. Living Terrors: What America Needs to Know to Survive the Coming Bioterrorist Catastrophe. New York: Delacorte Press. (2000).
  10. Pizzi, Nicholas G. Water Treatment Operator Handbook. Denver, CO: American Water Works, 2005.
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