Daily News Archives
From March 14, 2005

Wastewater Plants Identified As Chemical Security Threat, Alternatives Advocated
(Beyond Pesticides, March 14, 2005)
A new report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that local wastewater treatment plants are a security threat because “chemicals used in wastewater treatment” are a “key vulnerability.” The chemical of concern is chlorine, an extremely toxic disinfectant pesticide that is highly volatile and requires specific precautions in its transport, storage and use. Nationwide, there are more than 16,000 publicly owned wastewater systems, according to GAO, that serve more than 200 million people, or about 70 percent of the total population. According to EPA, Pesticide Industry Sales and Usage (p19), 1.56 billion pounds of chlorine were used as a disinfectant of potable and wastewater in 2001. Another one billion pounds of chlorine were used as a disinfectant for recreational water. The report recommends the replacement of chlorine with less hazardous chemicals or practices.

The report, Wastewater Facilities: Experts’ Views on How Federal Funds Should Be Spent to Improve Security (January 2005 GAO-05-165), says, “Since the events of September 11, 2001, the security of the nation’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure has received increased attention from Congress and the executive branch.” GAO was asked by Senators James Inhofe (R-OK) and James Jeffords (I-VT), chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works to “obtain experts’ views on (1) the key security-related vulnerabilities affecting the nation’s wastewater systems, (2) the activities the federal government should support to improve wastewater security, and (3) the criteria that should be used to determine how any federal funds are allocated to improve security, and the best methods to distribute these funds.”

According to GAO, “Thirty-two experts identified treatment chemicals used in wastewater treatment. Most experts singled out chlorine gas as a major chemical of concern. Chlorine is extremely volatile and requires specific precautions for its safe transport, storage, and use.” The report continues, “Well over half of experts surveyed (29 of 50) rated the replacement of gaseous chemicals at wastewater treatment facilities with less hazardous alternatives as warranting highest priority for federal funding. Fourteen more experts rated this activity as a “high” priority.”

The report states, “According to several experts, some communities and utilities currently using gaseous chemical treatment processes are interested in converting to an alternative treatment technology, but financial costs associated with conversion remain prohibitive. According to EPA, hypochlorite compounds tend to have higher operating costs than chlorine gas. Nonchlorine-based technologies, such as ozone and ultraviolet light, tend to have higher capital costs than chlorine gas, according to a study prepared for the U.S. Army.” (See Disinfection Technologies for Potable Water and Wastewater Treatment: Alternatives to Chlorine Gas, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, July 1998.)

The GAO findings continue: “Chlorine is a disinfectant that is commonly used in the treatment process before treated water (effluent) is discharged into local waterways. However, if chlorine, which is stored and transported as a liquefied gas under pressure, is accidentally released into the atmosphere, it quickly turns into a potentially lethal gas. Because gaseous chlorine is heavier than air, the cloud it forms tends to spread along the ground. Consequently, accidental or intentional releases of chlorine could be extremely harmful to those in the immediate area. Exposures to chlorine could burn eyes and skin, inflame the lungs, and could be deadly if inhaled. One expert pointed out that accidental releases of chlorine gas have occurred numerous times and that a deliberate release would be relatively feasible. The expert further explained that many wastewater plants have been converting from chlorine gas to alternative disinfection methods for various reasons, including the risk of a release. Recognizing that chlorine gas releases pose threats to the public and the environment, EPA requires, among other things, that any facility storing at least 2,500 pounds of chlorine gas submit a risk management plan; as of December 2004, EPA estimates that about 1,200 plants fit this category. The plan includes an estimate of the potential consequences to surrounding communities of hypothetical accidental “worst-case” chemical releases from their plants. These estimates include the residential population located within the range of a toxic gas cloud produced by a “worst-case” chemical release, called the vulnerable zone.” Derailments of tankers carrying chlorine have caused evacuations, hospitalizations and death. In February 2005, the District of Columbia City Council passed emergency legislation that bans train and truck shipments of hazardous materials within about two miles of the U.S. Capitol. The Bush administration on March 7, 2005 urged a federal court to invalidate the temporary local ban on train shipments of hazardous materials, siding with the freight rail industry's complaint that the prohibition is unnecessary.

The GAO researchers found that adoption of alternatives has resulted in offsetting costs. The report cites, as an example, the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington, D.C., which employed around-the-clock police units prior to replacing its chlorine gas treatment process, realizing a savings. In addition, Blue Plains was also able to reduce the need for certain emergency planning efforts and regulatory paperwork. Alternative treatment technologies include sodium hypochlorite (a solution of dissolved chlorine gas in sodium hydroxide) and ultraviolet disinfection. GAO cites these alternative processes as being implemented at several facilities throughout the United States, including Washington, D.C.; Atlanta, Georgia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Cincinnati, Ohio; Jacksonville, Florida; and Harahan, Louisiana. The change, for an individual plant, to sodium hypochlorite may require approximately $12.5 million for new equipment and increase annual chemical costs from $600,000 for gaseous chlorine to over $2 million for sodium hypochlorite.

According to GAO, “To date, the federal government’s role in promoting wastewater security has been limited primarily to supporting various training activities on completing vulnerability assessments and emergency response plans and several research projects addressing how contaminants affect treatment systems and other areas. However, legislation supporting an expanded federal role, including a substantially greater financial commitment, has been proposed in the past and may be considered again in the future.”

The report can be downloaded at www.gao.gov. The first copy of each printed report is free. Additional copies are $2 each. A check or money order should be made out to the Superintendent of Documents. GAO also accepts VISA and Mastercard. Orders for 100 or more copies mailed to a single address are discounted 25 percent. Orders should be sent to: U.S. Government Accountability Office, 441 G Street NW, Room LM, Washington, D.C. 20548. To order by Phone: Voice: (202) 512-6000, TDD: (202) 512-2537, Fax: (202) 512-6061.

Take Action: Find out what your wastewater plant is using and work with elected officials to stop the use of chlorine and adopt alternatives. Identify the transportation routes for hazardous materials. Evaluate evacuation and security plans.