Chris Ward, Mayor Bloomberg’s commissioner of the city Department of Environmental Protection, recently received an urgent e-mail message from the department’s top officer in charge of protecting the watershed. A truck that had been carrying a massive shipment of cyanide when it was hijacked 100 miles north of Mexico City had just been recovered by Mexican authorities.
And nearly eight tons of the lethal poison were missing from the truck.
Mr. Ward was frightened. Earlier this year, nine men with suspected ties to Al Qaeda were arrested in Italy bearing a cyanide-based substance and maps of Rome’s water system. So Mr. Ward’s first thought was that teams of terrorists were heading for New York, intent on dumping cyanide into the city’s water supply.
“It felt like I was in a Tom Clancy novel,” Mr. Ward told The Observer .
After placing the watershed police on orange alert-the second-highest state of warning-Mr. Ward asked his in-house scientists to assess the threat. Their conclusion: Even if all the cyanide were dumped into one reservoir, it would be rendered harmless by the billions of gallons of water that flow through the water system each day.
Now, a week after the incident, Mr. Ward remains on edge. He told The Observer that his watershed cops remain on orange alert.
The heightened security is one of many indications that Mr. Ward and his staff have been doing far more than has previously been disclosed to protect the city’s drinking water from terrorists. Indeed, The Observer has learned that the city is quietly implementing a range of new initiatives to defend the water system from bioterrorist attacks. The new security measures-which were suggested in confidential briefings by federal security officials-were described by Mr. Ward in an interview with The Observer that constitutes the Bloomberg administration’s first detailed explanation of the city’s plan to keep its water safe.
Many of the new initiatives are based on recommendations contained in a top-secret assessment of the security of the city water supply conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers, Mr. Ward told The Observer . The measures include everything from infrared cameras guarding reservoirs to initiatives designed to fortify vulnerable “intake points” to a proposed fleet of floating three-armed machines-like robotic skeeter bugs-that would constantly sample reservoir water for pathogens.
Only 20 copies of the Army Corps assessment have been released to officials with direct influence over watershed security, and those officials have been asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. The report was first undertaken in 1998 and quietly updated in the weeks after Sept. 11.
The Army Corps study is not to be confused with another assessment-released by a State Assembly committee to a flurry of headlines in mid-May-that blasted the city for not doing enough to protect its water supply from terrorists. Indeed, Mr. Ward’s staff has dismissed that report, and Mr. Ward noted that the Army Corps study was a far more thorough security blueprint.
“This is a comprehensive plan put together by top federal security experts,” he said.
The Army Corps of Engineers has reached a number of conclusions about the safety of the city’s water supply-some reassuring, others less so. For instance, Mr. Ward noted, the study concluded that the watershed is so vast-1,900 square miles of reservoirs, aqueducts, rivers, streams and wetlands-that it would be very difficult to contaminate. That conclusion was behind the city’s recent decision to allow fishing boats back on the reservoirs; they had been banned after Sept. 11.
“One of the greatest strengths of the watershed is simply its size,” Mr. Ward said. “There are 850 billion gallons of water. There are 19 different reservoirs. And the watershed is 150 miles north of the city. It’s almost impossible to use the New York City water system to really terrorize people.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Ward said, the Army Corps believes that several new measures are necessary to “harden” the watershed’s security. Many of the reservoirs are too large to be guarded by fencing; instead, Mr. Ward said, the D.E.P. will be doing aerial surveillance from a helicopter, and there will be constant boat patrols. Police patrolling the watershed in darkness will be outfitted with infrared night-vision goggles.
Mr. Ward added that he had asked the federal Office of Homeland Security for $14 million to launch a fleet of six security devices that would float on the reservoirs. The machines skim around the surface of the reservoir as they take constant samples to test the water for quality and pathogens.
“This will give us the capacity in the future to monitor for chemical agents,” Mr. Ward said.
Not all the conclusions reached by these federal experts are reassuring. For instance, Mr. Ward candidly noted that Army Corps officials had concluded that the water system has a number of vulnerable points in or just outside city limits.
For instance, Mr. Ward said that in the days after Sept. 11, the Army Corps of Engineers and F.B.I. security experts examined two potentially vulnerable points: the huge intake valves at undisclosed locations in the North Bronx and North Brooklyn. These valves are engineering marvels: They are hundreds of feet underground, with all sorts of complicated machinery designed to ease the torrential flow of water from upstate into the city’s water system. They are the main arteries of the system, the points where millions of gallons a day enter the city’s vast network of water capillaries. As such, Mr. Ward said, they are more vulnerable to sabotage than the reservoirs themselves.
An explosive could be used to rupture an intake valve, a scenario which could cause enormous logistical problems by temporarily staunching the flow of water to hundreds of thousands of businesses and households.
“It would be a huge disruption, but it wouldn’t be life-threatening or destabilizing,” Mr. Ward said.
To guard against such a calamity, the F.B.I. and the Army Corps have recommended that the city fortify security at the entrances to these cavernous underground valve chambers. Mr. Ward said the city had added steel doors, installed security cameras and increased the number of security checks.
Two other potential weak points, Mr. Ward said, are the Jerome Park reservoir in the Bronx and the Hillview reservoir in Yonkers, both of which are in busy residential neighborhoods and thus more easily accessed. Although the bodies of water are far too large to be poisoned, city officials hope to prevent all forms of tampering by keeping people away entirely.
So those two bodies of water will be ringed with so-called tickler wire, which, when touched by either a fanatic bearing anthrax or a would-be skinny-dipper, will immediately relay an electronic signal to a nearby command center manned by D.E.P. watershed cops. The D.E.P. will also install a system of 33 infrared night cameras to monitor those two reservoirs.
Finally, the city is beefing up bioterrorism training for its watershed cops. The environmental police force, according to some environmentalists, is struggling with low morale and low pay and is unprepared for a high-stakes task such as guarding against bioterrorism.
“Suddenly, these underpaid watershed cops are faced with a real security challenge,” said Democratic consultant Richard Schrader, who played a lead role in negotiating the 1996 watershed agreement that tightened pollution controls and enforcement in the reservoirs. “Historically, they have not been particularly well trained-and worse, they have operated without a stable chain of command.”
In the end, the toughest task for Mr. Ward may be battling the perception that the water system is an easy target for terrorists. The image of huge drums of poison being dumped into the reservoirs could distract from the real threats: a lack of training for watershed cops, and the possibility that a bomb could devastate the system’s intake points.
“Given the system’s breadth and complexity, poison is not a real threat to the city,” Mr. Ward said. “We are taking precautionary measures at the points of structural vulnerability, so people should be doubly reassured.