EPA Homeland Security Research

Water Security Test Bed: Real-World Testing of Real-World Systems Issues

By Christina Burchette

In high school, I was cast as a jitterbug dancer in our school’s production of The Wizard of Oz. Before the show, the cast and I practiced choreography in our school’s small dance studio. It took me a while to get the steps (hand-eye coordination was never one of my strong suits), but eventually I felt pretty confident in my abilities. That changed when we performed the dance for the first time on the auditorium stage—in front of the entire student body. The stage was three times as large as the dance studio. As the music started, the small and subtle steps we had practiced in the studio quickly turned into leaps and bounds across the stage. For that first performance we couldn’t keep time with the music, but we all stayed in unison! Clearly, dancing on the stage was much different than in the studio.

Pipes and equipment at the Water Security Test Bed in Idaho

Pipes and equipment at the Water Security Test Bed in Idaho

That’s why your practice environment should be as close as possible to the one in which you perform—that way, you’re better prepared for the real thing. This concept is also important for research, which is why EPA built the Water Security Test Bed (WSTB)—a full-sized replica of a drinking water distribution system at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory.  The WSTB enables EPA to conduct real-world experiments regarding water security in the face of emergency situations (e.g., intentional or accidental contamination incidents) and aging infrastructure. The above-ground, 445 feet long pipe structure uses 30 year-old, eight-inch pipes and hydrants that were pulled from real municipal water systems to ensure that researchers are working with true-to-life conditions.

Researchers have performed water security tests before, but never on a model with true-to-life equipment and dimensions. Using this replica, researchers will use materials that mimic toxic materials in the water system and determine what kinds of effects they have on the water and infrastructure and how to most effectively and rapidly remove them. They will also perform tests that address potential cybersecurity threats and the effects of contamination on infrastructure and household appliances. This research will provide information to water utilities on how to prevent such events or, if they do happen, how to treat the problem in the fastest and most effective way possible.

It’s important for researchers to perform tests in conditions as close to real life as possible to account for actual conditions that may not be achievable in lab set ups—and they have already discovered that the tests they perform at the WSTB yield different results than pilot scale experiments. These results prove that a full-sized system will provide more accurate information on how to handle water utility emergencies, ensuring that those responding to the situation have better tools to work with.

Over the next few years, EPA and it collaborators plan to run various experiments to ensure that if disaster strikes our water infrastructure systems, we have the data and tools to protect our infrastructure and public health. EPA invites water sector researchers and other federal agencies to collaborate in ongoing research or initiate new areas of investigation at the WSTB.

Watch the video below to learn more about the Water Security Test Bed:


About the Author: Christina Burchette is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and writer for the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Tools for Building Disaster Resilient Communities

By Eli Walton

As a student in Connecticut, I witnessed first-hand the effects of major disasters like Hurricane Sandy and “Winter Storm Nemo,” the February 2013 blizzard. Downed trees and branches littered streets and green space, record snowfall rendered roadways impassable for residents and emergency services, and hundreds of thousands of people were left without power, sometimes for weeks. Having experienced these impacts, I am grateful to be part of EPA’s efforts to help communities better mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from events like these.

Disaster responders in hazmat suits clean up

EPA Responds to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010.

Disasters—whether a hurricane, oil spill, or contamination event—can strike at any time, at any place, and can have devastating consequences for human health and the environment. They may make existing problems worse, like when the Joplin, Missouri tornado exposed people to toxic waste lingering from Joplin’s mining days. They also may create new environmental hazards, like when mold plagued homes and businesses flooded by Hurricane Sandy. While not all disasters can be prevented, the potential harms and risks they pose can be mitigated with the right tools and actions.

Researchers and scientists in EPA’s Homeland Security Research Program, along with collaborators across the Agency, are constantly developing and refining new tools for decision-makers. These tools, compiled in this inventory, serve a variety of purposes, including cleaning up contamination, managing waste and debris, and modeling watersheds. Individually, these tools address different issues that may arise when preparing for or responding to an event. Altogether, they can help communities become more resilient to disasters.

An American flag hangs above wreckage from a tornado.

Wreckage following a 2013 Tornado in Moore, Oklahoma.

For example, the Incident Waste Assessment & Tonnage Estimator (I-WASTE) can help with disaster preparedness and planning by identifying appropriate waste disposal technologies and facilities before they are needed. The Community-Based Water Resiliency Tool (CBWR) can help with emergency planning for an event that may affect water resources and can be used by utilities, officials, and concerned citizens alike. When environmental contamination arises, the Aggregated Computational Toxicology Online Resource (ACTOR) can be used to inform decisions based on chemical toxicity and the potential health effects of chemical exposures in the environment.

The tools in this inventory are just a sample of EPA’s resources, and much more work is underway across the Agency and with collaborators to help strengthen both individual and community disaster resilience.

About the Author: Eli Walton is a Student Services Contractor with the National Homeland Security Research Center in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Technology for Community Resiliency

By Paul Lemieux

This week I was honored to participate in the White House Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Demo Day. From finding an open gas station to finding a safe place to sleep at night following a disaster or finding a vehicle you can rent by the hour, participants shared a variety of amazing technology applications to help make communities more resilient in the aftermath of disaster.

Me giving a presentation on I-WASTE at the White House's Old Executive Office Building.

Paul giving a presentation on I-WASTE at the White House’s Old Executive Office Building.

While there were some great private sector tools from big innovators like Airbnb, Google, Microsoft, SeeClickFix, and TaskRabbit there were just as many amazing tools from government innovators, too.

An example of some of the government tools highlighted during the demo:

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) announced GeoQ, a tool that crowdsources geo-tagged photos of disaster-affected areas to assess damage over large regions. Developed in coordination with NGA, the Presidential Innovation Fellow Program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other disaster analysts, GeoQ improves the speed and quality of disaster-related data coordination by using a data crowd-sharing framework. Programmers can use the existing services and add features to customize the GeoQ code for their own community.

The U.S. Geological Service (USGS) highlighted ShakeMap and other post-earthquake information tools that offer rapid situational awareness for disaster response and recovery. Using data from seismic monitoring systems maintained by USGS and its state and university partners, ShakeMap provides a rapid graphical estimate of ground shaking in an affected region on the web within minutes of an event. The maps and underlying data, which can be downloaded in numerous formats for use in GIS and other applications, are also the basis for ShakeCast—which enables emergency managers at a growing number of companies, response organizations, and local governments to automatically receive USGS shaking data and generate their own customized impact alerts for their facilities.

And I showcased EPA’s I-WASTE, a flexible, web-based, planning and decision-making tool to address disaster waste management issues. I-WASTE offers emergency responders, industry representatives, and responsible officials reliable information on waste characterization, treatment, and disposal options, as well as guidance on how to incorporate waste management into planning and response for natural disasters, terrorist attacks and animal disease outbreaks.

It is clear that there are a number of public and private organizations working together with individuals and communities around the country to ensure that together we are prepared and ready to respond to the next disaster we might face.

Watch a video of how I-WASTE can help your community, embedded below, or go to http://www.epa.gov/sciencematters/homeland/clean-up.htm

Paul Lemieux, Ph.D. works on issues related to clean up after chemical/biological/radiological attacks and foreign animal disease outbreaks. Paul has also been working to develop computer-based decision support tools to aid decision makers in responding to wide-area contamination incidents. He is the Associate Division Director of the Decontamination and Consequence Management Division of U.S. EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Around the Water Cooler: Monitoring Drinking Water Systems

By Robert Janke

Water TowerA reliable source of clean, drinkable water is a must for any city or community to survive and prosper.  We take for granted the clean, drinkable water delivered from the tap whenever we want to quench that thirst. But few people recognize or understand the complexity of our nation’s water system and what goes into the operations required to deliver this essential human need in an unfailing way, day in and day out.

As one of our nation’s critical infrastructures, water distribution systems face security threats ranging from natural disasters, like hurricanes and extreme weather, to intentional acts of sabotage or terrorism.

Obviously, it’s important to be able to quickly detect, assess, and respond to any kind of water contamination event no matter the source. But in order to do that, it is essential to have a real-time understanding of what is going on in the water distribution system. This would help water utilities be better prepared to respond to natural disasters or intentional acts of sabotage and could also alert them to other problems like leaks in the distribution system or water quality problems.

So how do we get a real-time understanding of water system operations? We integrate a utility’s infrastructure model with their real-time or Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) data. We are testing and evaluating our real-time modeling software tools at the Northern Kentucky Water District (NKWD).

We are demonstrating how our real-time modeling software tools can be used to provide water utility operators with a better understanding of their water system and its operation. With our software tools, utility operators will have a “flight simulator” type of capability which will allow them to be better prepared to respond to emergencies and plan for the future.

To gain this understanding of the water system, we have developed an object-oriented software library called EPANET-RTX (EPANET “Real-Time eXtension”). RTX, for short, joins operational data from an already existing data system with an infrastructure model to improve operations and enhance security in a more sustainable and productive manner. RTX is built on the industry standard for distribution system modeling, EPANET, and leverages years of real-time modeling research and development efforts conducted by EPA.

RTX is open source software, and you can find it here. By making it open source, EPA hopes commercial companies will evaluate the technology and use it to develop commercial products.  We will continue to develop the RTX libraries which the water community will be able to use to (1) help water utilities field verify (validate) their infrastructure models and (2) develop RTX-based applications. These RTX-based applications will enable water utilities to better manage, operate, and secure their water systems.

To learn more about EPA’s research to keep our water systems safe and secure, please visit: epa.gov/nhsrc.

About the Author: Robert Janke is a research scientist intent on making sure our water stays clean and drinkable. He works in EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center located in Cincinnati, OH. Scientists in Cincinnati have been working on clean water issues for more than 100 years. Along with Rob Janke, the RTX project is being led by a multi-disciplinary team composed of Steve Allgeier, Michael Tryby, Lewis Rossman, Terra Haxton, and John Hall.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Liquids, Fumigants, or Foggers: Decontaminating Ricin

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Line of police tape with emergency responders in the far backgroundYou can’t watch the news lately and not hear the word “ricin.” Letters laced with ricin have been sent to the President, other federal officials, and New York City’s Mayor. And while the letters have not reached their intended recipients, ricin can contaminate mail sorters and buildings.

What is ricin? Where do you even find it? These were the questions I asked when I first heard a letter addressed to the President was contaminated with ricin. From an intensive google search, I learned ricin comes from castor beans. It is extremely toxic (a few particles the size of table salt grains can kill a human) and the effects depend on whether it is inhaled, ingested, or injected.  The ricin that contaminated the letters, in these cases, was in the form of a powder, but ricin can also be used by terrorists as mist, a pellet, or it can be dissolved in water or weak acid, too.

While everyone is deemed safe at this point, an element I wondered about was who decontaminates the mail sorters and equipment the letters came into contact with, or the buildings where it was produced, and how? This is where EPA’s homeland security research comes into play.

While the “who” part depends on where the incident happens, the “how” is being researched day in and day out – looking for the best sampling methods and decontamination techniques.

One focus of homeland security research at EPA examines the efficacy of different decontamination methods, for example, using liquids, fumigants, or foggers. Scientists and engineers have identified ways to contain decontaminants and ways to dispose of the waste after decontamination. Hydrogen peroxide, pH-adjusted bleach, and chlorine-dioxide fumigation decontamination technologies are techniques researchers have tested and found to be successful decontaminants in different scenarios.

Researchers here have also developed a suite of decision support tools to assist in the safe disposal of waste and debris that might be generated during a contamination incident. The research helps decision-makers make the most appropriate choices for each situation and gives them the tools to make sure the environment is safe following an event.

While the health of those who may have been exposed is always first and foremost during a situation like this, responders also want to make sure they can decontaminate effected buildings, rooms, and equipment and mitigate any subsequent exposures. To learn more about EPA’s homeland security indoor and outdoor cleanup research,  please visit: http://www.epa.gov/nhsrc/aboutdecon.html

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry is a frequent blogger covering water issues, but has recently expanded to share how researchers and engineers keep us safe from all the bad stuff, specifically in events of terrorism – chemical, biological, or radiological – or natural events like hurricanes, earthquakes and nuclear accidents.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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EPA’s Homeland Security Research Center Turns 10 Today!

By Jonathan G. Herrmann, P.E., BCEE

When I watched Claire Danes accept an Emmy Award for her role as Carrie Mathison in the television series “HOMELAND” last Sunday evening, I was again reminded that homeland security is neither out of sight nor out of mind.

In fact, today, EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center turns 10!

I had the great honor of being one of the Center’s founding members when it was formally established on September 28, 2002.  We drew upon the experience and expertise of the scientific, technical, and administrative staff from across EPA’s Office of Research and Development in creating the Center.  Our near-term goal was to put in place a talented team of individuals to support the Agency in responding to the tragedy of 9/11 and the Amerithrax attacks later in 2001.

The events of 9/11 were devastating to the American public and their impact was felt around the World.  Amerithrax killed five people and contaminated at least 17 buildings with weaponized anthrax spores.  These incidents, along with the possibility of other attacks, required the U.S. Government—at all levels—to do what was necessary to respond and recover—and prevent attacks from happening again in the United States.

EPA continues to play a critical role in protecting the country’s water infrastructure and has the responsibility to address the intentional contamination of buildings, water systems and public areas.  These activities are informed and supported by our research results and scientific and technical expertise.

Our work is guided by laws, Presidential Directives, the National Response Framework, and is consistent with the National Security Strategy.  EPA scientists and engineers provide guidance, tools and technical support to decision makers at the federal, state, and local levels to ensure that decontamination is as cost-effective and timely as possible.  Together with our partners in EPA’s Program Offices and Regions, we enhance the nation’s capability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from both man-made and natural disasters.

Events like Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010) and, more recently, the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan (2011) tested our capabilities like never before.  Along with Agency peers and colleagues from across the federal government, EPA scientists and engineers stepped up to these extraordinary challenges with their time, skills, expertise, energy, and dedication.

I am proud of EPA’s homeland security research efforts and the contributions that the Center has made.  Our efforts strengthen our nation’s resiliency and advance EPA’s mission to protect public health and the environment.

About the author:  Jonathan Herrmann is Director, National Homeland Security Research Center, EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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