Tuesday, February 25, 2003

City takes role in homeland security

Labs protect water supply

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

One of the most important battles in the war against terrorism won't be fought in the caves of Afghanistan.

Engineering technician Christy Frietch conducts research on drinking water at National Homeland Security Research Center in Corryville.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
Instead, a behind-the-scenes battle to better protect the U.S. drinking water supply from terrorist attack will be fought in Cincinnati - by more than 80 scientists in the labs of a modernistic federal building in Corryville.

These experts are part of the newly created National Homeland Security Research Center, based at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offices on Martin Luther King Drive. On Monday, three area congressmen and local media got their first glimpses of the fast-moving work the center already has begun.

Even though money from its $50 million budget for this year has barely begun to flow, officials say they will complete at least two major initiatives by this summer:

• Provide information to water utilities all around the country about whether their existing treatment systems will effectively filter biological or chemical weapons.

• Issue a report, based heavily on research from the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, on new, quicker ways to detect toxins in the water supply.

Name: National Homeland Security Research Center.
Location: U.S. EPA Andrew W. Breidenbach Environmental Research Center, 26 W. Martin Luther King Drive, Corryville.
Mission: As part of the federal Office of Research and Development, the new center coordinates a variety of homeland security research efforts, including developing methods to clean up contaminated buildings, protect drinking water supplies, and improve risk assessment techniques.
Personnel: More than 80 researchers, including existing EPA staff plus people from other federal agencies, academia and the private sector.
"Cincinnati has accepted a tremendous responsibility on behalf of our nation," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. "As (Secretary of State) Colin Powell has told us, we're up against people who want nothing short of America's destruction. America needs new information to deal with these threats."

The creation of the National Homeland Security Research Center was announced in Washington, D.C., in September. Even so, the program is so new that many Tristate residents don't realize it exists, much less that it is headquartered in Cincinnati.

Just a week after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge visited Cincinnati to outline a new readiness campaign for civilians, the new research center is thrusting the city into the national spotlight again.

The center's mission includes protecting the drinking water supply; developing faster monitors and test kits for detecting early signs of a biochemical attack; and developing better ways to decontaminate buildings, said Tim Oppelt, freshly appointed director of the National Homeland Security Research Center.

Many officials want to avoid a repeat of the months-long shutdowns of a postal center in New Jersey and a Senate office building after anthrax attacks in 2001.

While directed by the Cincinnati headquarters, much of the research will be conducted at a $380 million EPA center recently built in North Carolina, Oppelt said.

Scientists in Cincinnati will focus mostly on drinking water concerns. In Corryville, experts will use a mini water treatment plant to simulate how mock toxins would affect a full-scale treatment plant. Tests on some real chemical and biological agents would occur inside an upgraded containment lab.

Among the concerns that need more study: how to protect water after it leaves a treatment plant.

"The water distribution system is vulnerable," Oppelt said. "There are 17,000 miles of water pipeline in Cincinnati and about 900,000 miles of water pipeline nationwide."

Counting contract workers, the EPA employs about 900 scientists and support staff in Cincinnati and has an annual budget of about $175 million.

In addition to the $50 million in direct federal support, the EPA is reassigning more staff to work at least part-time on national security concerns. It also is counting on help from private industry, academia and other federal agencies.

As part of the effort, on Monday, officials with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Air Force signed cooperation agreements with the EPA to share expertise on homeland security.

The relationships have many potential applications.

For example, the military has expertise in decontaminating equipment and facilities that could be modified for use in responding to attacks on civilian targets.

Meanwhile, the FDA has started studying various toxins that might be used to poison the nation's food supply. Some of that research also could apply to the drinking water system, officials said.

So why was Cincinnati selected for such a center?

The city has a century-long history of water-safety research, including more than 25 years of EPA work at the Corryville center. The city of Cincinnati also has one of the most sophisticated drinking water treatment systems in the world.

And, the Tristate has some powerful politicians who are close to the Bush administration.

"I did push for this," said Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. "The Cincinnati office has a long history of environmental research. So it made a lot of sense."

E-mail tbonfield@enquirer.com

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