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Toledo joins U.S. effort to ensure safe water

The FBI has asked officials at America's public water systems to check their employee rosters against the agency's watch lists to guard against the possibility of terrorists gaining access to the nation's drinking water.

In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to help the estimated 168,000 public water companies across the country recognize traces of anything that should be perceived as red flags.

Bob Stevenson, Toledo's commissioner of treatment services, confirmed that the FBI has provided him lists of people believed to be associated with terrorists. None matches a name of a city water department employee, he said.

“Most of our employees have been with us 10 to 15 years,” Mr. Stevenson said. “The water plant is a close-knit group of people.”

But, Toledo is not taking anything for granted, he added.

Toledo is spending more than $1 million to install additional lighting, fences, and security cameras at the main Collins Park treatment facility on the east side and at some satellite stations throughout the metropolitan area.

Besides providing drinking water to its residents, Toledo sells water to Maumee, Sylvania, most unincorporated areas of Lucas County, Northwood, Rossford, Perrysburg Township in northern Wood County, Delta in Fulton County, and parts of southern Monroe County, Michigan.

Extra layers of security are being added in the form of new doors and windows. Collins Park is being patrolled around the clock by three squad cars, two manned by Toledo police and one by private security officers, Mr. Stevenson said.

Toledo has been getting daily updates from the CDC since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mr. Stevenson added.

“We've taken our security to a new level,” he said.

The Ohio-American Water Co., which has water plants in Tiffin, Ashtabula, and Marion, has been on a high state of alert since Sept. 11, said Deb Rapert, a company spokeswoman. Additional security measures have been enacted, including 24-hour protection from local police and sheriff's deputies, she said.

The $1 million being spent by Toledo and the additional security expenses at water plants elsewhere across the nation are being made without any assurance of federal reimbursement.

The White House recently asked Congress for $76 million to help the federal EPA assess and help pay for security improvements to drinking water facilities nationwide, but legislation has not yet been approved for that funding.

In the meantime, the EPA is working with the FBI to tighten security around public water supplies.

“We want to make sure no known terrorists have already infiltrated a major water company,” U.S. EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said earlier this month in Portland, Ore..

“We're working with the CDC to identify pollutants and know how to respond,” Ms. Whitman said. “Everyone understands what's at stake here, and it's serious.”

As America's top environmental regulator, Ms. Whitman agrees that heightened security measures are prudent - yet she wants people to keep a cool head.

“Contrary to what many people fear, poisoning the public water system is an extremely difficult undertaking,” she said.

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