Budget Cuts Said to Raise Terror Threat to Water Infrastructure

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By Brian Dabbs

President Donald Trump often paints a dire picture of the U.S. as a country that desperately needs to rebuild and to protect itself better. The security of the country is in peril as violent extremism persists abroad, and the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling, Trump often says.

But the Environmental Protection Agency’s fiscal year 2018 tentative budget, a document that fulfills the cuts put forth in the administration’s initial blueprint, puts the EPA water office’s critical water infrastructure initiatives on the chopping block. Those initiatives have served as the cornerstone of the EPA’s resiliency plans for threats facing the U.S. water supply.

The elimination would leave the U.S. water system more vulnerable to terrorism and natural contamination, a former federal law enforcement official and water specialists told Bloomberg BNA.

‘Wrecking Ball Approach’

“It’s pretty hard to see why it makes any sense. This is just the wrecking ball approach,” according to the former law enforcement official, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the information. The fiscal year 2018 budget targets more cuts at the EPA than any other agency based off annualized fiscal year 2017 levels, lopping off roughly $2.8 billion in funding and more than 3,000 full-time positions.

Meanwhile, discarding the water system programs, among them the Water Security Initiative, would shave just $7.7 million from the budget in exchange for real risk to Americans, the official said.

The EPA fiscal year 2018 budget identifies those programs under Homeland Security: Critical Infrastructure Protection. About 23 employees currently fall within that category, according to the document, and the budget axes those positions as well.

David Travers, director of the EPA water security division, and Helen Jackson, a Department of Homeland Security official, recently outlined cybersecurity threats facing the U.S. water supply at a March conference attended by state drinking water administrators.

Innovative Threats

Those threats, which include both external hijacking of utilities and insider threats, are compounded by increasing automation in the sector, those officials said.

The former law enforcement official wouldn’t comment on specific threats posed in the past but insisted the threat is real. “There are constant efforts by bad guys to look at ways to attack the United States, from laptop bombs to, yes, thinking about the water supply because that’s just evil magic to them,” the former official said.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the EPA teamed up with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to ensure water security.

A presidential directive from the Bush administration several years after the attack laid the foundation for the Water Security Initiative. The security initiatives provide training and expertise on safeguarding systems against natural contamination threats, such as those stemming from flooding and earthquakes. But the program has also established pilot projects for contamination warning systems nationwide, according to an EPA report. Those pilots function off partnerships with local utilities.

The budget would deprive that federal and local cooperation of unrivaled EPA expertise, Julia Anastasio, executive director of the Association of Clean Water Administrators, told Bloomberg BNA.

“Clearly, I think it would eliminate what we see as a helpful resource,” she said.

Duplicative Spending?

The cuts to the water security initiatives aim to scale back duplicative spending and operations, according to the budget. Anastasio countered that interpretation of the initiatives, arguing DHS can’t provide that know-how alone. “There’s a lot of security issues they’re considering and focusing on, and water and wastewater utilities may just not rise to the top,” Anastasio said.

Claudio Ternieden, government affairs director at the Water Environment Federation, urged the EPA to reconsider the elimination.

“We understand this administration wants to cut back on waste, but elimination of resources without consideration of impact is not prudent,” he told Bloomberg BNA. “The EPA has been a very important part of this conversation.”

An EPA spokeswoman didn’t respond to Bloomberg BNA requests for comment. The DHS and FBI also didn’t respond.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Dabbs in Washington at bdabbs@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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