Broward County

After Plant Hack, South Florida Water Directors Confident Similar Attack Would be Detected

After a Tampa-area water system was hacked, boosting levels of a dangerous chemical within a treatment plant, South Florida water directors reassure the community.

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The hack of a water treatment plant near Tampa last week is sounding alarms across the country today.

Experts have warned for decades about vulnerabilities of utilities and other critical infrastructure. And the attack in Oldsmar last Friday is the stuff of critical infrastructure nightmares.

"It is frightening and it is a situation that requires a lot of preparation," said Jose Cueto, interim director of Miami-Dade's Water and Sewer Department.

Both Cueto and his counterpart in Broward, Alan Garcia, say their systems have defenses in place to ward off or detect a similar attack.

Someone gained remote access to Oldsmar's system to release large amounts of lye into the water intended for 15,000 people in that community. It was detected and contained before the tainted water was released to customers.

"The hacker changed the sodium hydroxide from about 100 parts per million to 11,100 parts per million," said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, using the chemical name for lye.

It's something you do not want to shower in, much less drink. Exposure to elevated levels can cause skin and eye irritation, severe burns, eye damage and blindness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Drinking a strong enough batch can cause severe injury to the mouth and stomach.

But the people in charge of water in Miami-Dade and Broward said the public can be confident its water is safe.

"We feel like this would not happen to us and we are prepared should an actor attempt such an activity as in Oldsmar," Cueto said.

"There are both physical barriers and technological barriers that would prevent a similar attack from occurring in Broward County," said Garcia.

If someone were able to alter chemicals levels here, they both said it would be detected before reaching your tap.

"In addition to our sensors and automated systems that we keep at our treatment facilities, our staff take manual readings on a regular basis every two hours. As a result, any changes in chemical levels, water quality, would immediately be detected," Cueto said.

Added Broward's Garcia: "We do have treatment plant operators that do work around the clock and part of their jobs is to monitor the systems for any indication like that."

In Oldsmar, it was an observant employee who saw something wrong and stopped the chemicals from reaching the water supply.

"At no time was there a significant adverse effect on the water being treated," Gualtieri said. "Importantly, the public was never in danger."

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