In previous columns I have discussed the responsibility that local government has to public health. Much of the information previously shared was in regard to prevention of disease transmission and disaster preparedness. The city’s responsibility for public health is large in scope. It also includes the provision of water and wastewater services to both city residents and those living in unincorporated Charlotte County in our utility service area.
The City of Punta Gorda operates two water treatment plants. A surface water plant gets its source water from Shell Creek, and the newest plant, which is a reverse osmosis plant, uses ground water drawn from wells. Both plants are operated and monitored via computer interface systems.
Plant operators are able to access the system remotely for emergency operations if necessary. There are safe guards in place to restrict access to only authorized personnel, but of course it is still a computer system. The plants themselves have meters throughout the treatment process which monitor the chemistry of the water. When meters have a reading outside their set parameter, it will send an alarm to the system to alert the operators on duty. In addition, the operators take samples and analyze the chemistry manually. This is an additional safety check and also verifies that the meters are reading correctly.
The situation in Oldsmar, Florida brought the safety of these facilities into the spotlight. In the Oldsmar attack an operator’s computer was overtaken by a remote hacker. The hacker raised the levels of sodium hydroxide to 100 times the normal level. Sodium hydroxide is a chemical that basically changes the pH of the water. It can be contained in drain cleaner as was reported, but can also be contained in common household products such as shampoo and even shaving cream(or water).
Although it was later reported that this incident was actually at a wastewater treatment facility, the City of Punta Gorda water treatment facility has pH monitors that automatically alarm if the pH is out of range, and also manual sampling protocols. The same is true for other chemicals.
While cybersecurity is certainly not a new issue with security concerns spanning many years, city staff remains equally as concerned with physical security to protect the water supply and treatment facilities. Simply limiting access to the facilities is one form of physical security in place for the City of Punta Gorda’s water and wastewater utility and one of the primary forms of protection. This includes fencing as another feature designed to protect the vital assets and protect the water supply.
Physical and cybersecurity do not happen without the people committed to providing quality service to our utility customers. Six divisions: utilities administration, water treatment, water distribution, wastewater treatment, wastewater collections and fleet, made up of 68 individuals work under the direction of Interim Utilities Director Chuck Pavlos to ensure safe drinking water and safe treatment of wastewater for the city utility customers.
The provision of these services is a 24 hour a day, 365 days a year responsibility and I thank each of our employees who take on this challenge. Their work helps the city deliver on our vision to continue to preserve our small-town character while promoting diversity, economic development and sustainability.
Greg Murray is city manager of Punta Gorda.