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Breach at Water Tank Shows Vulnerabilities

March 30, 2006

BOSTON (AP) _ Jim Sawyer already had brushed his teeth, taken a shower and had a cup of coffee by the time he learned that the water flowing into his Blackstone home might have been contaminated.

Authorities allege that three teenagers had broken into the water storage facility, about 55 miles southwest of Boston, after cutting barbed wire and slicing the lines to an alarm.

``I didn’t think it was that easy to get at our water supply,″ said Sawyer, 21.

Authorities ruled out terrorism, but the breach in the town of 9,000 highlighted the vulnerabilities of municipal water supplies and showcased the fears of terrorism in towns big and small.

``It could happen anywhere,″ said Blackstone resident Hollyanne Knust Graichen. ``Why not pick a small town and make a big statement? That’s the first thing I thought of. Ever since 9-11, that’s the only thing everyone thinks of.″

Police have arrested two 15-year-old boys and charged them with malicious destruction of property, tampering with a public water supply and polluting the water supply, all felonies. They were also charged with trespassing.

A summons was issued to a 15-year-old girl suspected of trespassing.

Authorities said Wednesday that tests found no evidence of chemical contamination in the water, also used by about four dozen homes in neighboring North Smithfield, R.I.

But the damage already was done: Schools and businesses were closed, use of water for any purpose was banned, residents had been put on edge and thousands of dollars were spent on tests and repair.

``No matter how careful you are, something can go wrong,″ said Blackstone Town Administrator Ray Houle.

While water is not a spectacular target for vandals or terrorists when compared with a nuclear plant or giant sports stadium, towns depend on it for drinking, bathing, business and firefighting.

``People are very concerned about the tainting of a water supply where you can incur mass illness and death in one fell swoop,″ said state Sen. Stephen Brewer, the sponsor of a bill to toughen penalties for trespassing on water supply lands.

Brewer said the Blackstone case should bring attention to the need to strengthen laws.

``It’s not an issue to be taken lightly,″ he said. ``Trespassing on a public water supply is not Huck Finn taking a dip in the local reservoir. The world is a far different place since 9-11.″

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the federal government ordered water utilities to assess their vulnerability to attacks and seek ways to protect against them.

Since 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency has provided $2 million in grants and training programs to large public water supply systems in New England, said Jane Downing, chief of the drinking water branch for EPA New England. That’s in addition to general grant funding for all communities for water-related needs.

Communities are taking security seriously, she said, ``but doing the balancing act with the cost.″

Houle, the Blackstone town administrator, said the community had planned even before Monday’s breach to upgrade security at the storage tank. He said officials will now reassess their needs and the financing available.

``What this may highlight is that some of our homeland security monies may need to be refocused,″ said state Rep. Jennifer M. Callahan, whose district includes Blackstone. ``Every community has these issues, big and small.″


Associated Press Writer Ray Henry contributed to this report from Blackstone, Mass.

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