As serious 'as a terror attack'

Adrian J Clark - project manager of the detection department at the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory at Porton Down - reviews a conference that looked at ways of addressing water contamination incidents

When addressing preparedness in dealing with water contamination emergencies it is always instructive to look at past incidents. Even so, when the organisers of the two-day international conference, Water Contamination Emergencies: Collective Responsibility, started to plan the programme two years ago, they could not have foreseen the turn of events.

As it transpired, the floods of summer 2007 in the west of England provided a prime example of a large-scale civil emergency. It was described by Sir Michael Pitt as the biggest loss of critical infrastructure in the UK since World War II. This natural disaster was responsible for the deaths of 13 people, and led to flooding of about 48,000 homes. It caused about £3B of damage - according to the Environment Agency - and resulted in loss of water supply and power to tens of thousands of properties.

Critical infrastructure
The floods provided a prime example of the need to take into account the interdependencies that exist when protecting critical infrastructure, including water supplies. It also highlighted the importance of interagency cooperation in managing contamination incidents.

Pitt - who produced a report on the floods for the Cabinet Office - said on Radio 4 in December 2007: "Flood planning should be put on a similar level to terrorism or pandemic flu - we want the same priority, levels of performance and reaction."

This link to terrorism is significant in the context of water contamination emergencies. It highlights some important overlaps between response to natural or accidental pollution incidents, and acts of deliberate contamination where water is considered a possible target for terrorist attack. It was against this backdrop that delegates and speakers at the conference addressed collective responsibility. Several of the invited speakers made specific reference to the floods - notably Gordon Nichols, deputy director of the Health Protection Agency, and Phillip Mills, who presented findings from the Water UK review.

The conference formed the third in a series supported by the UK Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI), for which Royal Society of Chemistry, Society of Chemical Industry, and Institute of Water Officers, acted as principle sponsors.

The aim of the conference, held at the Royal Society of Medicine in London in April, was to promote wider national and international collaboration in sharing lessons.

The programme was divided into three main themes, each of which progressed through three sequential sessions - planning and preparedness; security and initial response; incident management and its aftermath. The first theme dealt with operational aspects. It included international perspectives from Konrad Gill, from Australia, and Roy Haught, of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

There were also two talks provided by DWI. Sharon Evans provided a UK perspective on roles and responsibilities, and Marcus Rink covered physical security and integrity of assets. Incident management in operations included a presentation from Stephen Treado of the US National Institute of Standards & Technology. Keith Silcock of Water Direct spoke on the provision of alternative sources of supply, with further lessons from the 2007 floods.

The second theme looked at information and data management. Jeff Danneels of Sandia National Laboratories provided US experience of vulnerability assessments. Guy Howard of the Department for International Development described risk-based approaches. Presentations then followed, covering a range of detection methods currently being developed for rapid screening of contaminants in water.

The third theme dealt with communications, and the importance of having suitable plans in place. Presentations by Paul Fenton of Southern Water, Margaret McGuinness of Scottish Water, and Kim Fox of USEPA, provided a useful comparison of different countries' approaches.

Medical preparedness and the function of health practitioners in providing early warning were also covered, along with the importance of communicating with the public.

A recent case of anthrax in Scotland, described by Colin Ramsay of Health Protection Scotland, provided an example of a multi-agency challenge in consequence management. Other presentations drew upon past experience of managing major incidents in the UK. The importance of being able to learn from failure in the water sector was addressed by Brian MacGillivray of Lancaster University.

The final plenary session brought all presenters and delegates together to consider best practice.

Martin Furness presented his personal overview of lessons learned from major contamination incidents. Contributions included ways in which effective networks might be promoted nationally and internationally to share best practice. These and the other aspects discussed will be expanded upon in the published proceedings.

Common themes
In his closing summary, John Gray, committee chairman, highlighted the common themes. He posed the question as to whether we all learn sufficiently from past incidents, share this information with others as well as we might, and use this knowledge to develop improved practices.

Gray hoped the conference would stimulate delegates to action in putting real improvements in place, taking forward to completion the key issues which had been identified, and to continue to develop capabilities through shared experience.

The 2007 floods have shown that it is even more important than ever to be prepared for the unexpected, and this should remove any lingering complacency. It also demonstrates the need to move towards more harmonious and inclusive interagency cooperation.

The UK water industry has a well-established record in providing high-quality drinking water. Water companies and relevant agencies recognise the need to constantly update their practices and procedures, a process that must continue to be a collective responsibility.

The 2008 conference proceedings, containing full papers from presenters, will soon be published by the Royal Society of Chemistry and can be ordered from RSC Publishing at www.rsc.org/publishing

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