Liquid Purity

Every day, about 1,000 people go to work for the City of Phoenix's Water Services Department.

They drive the trucks. They work at the city's water and wastewater treatment plants. They monitor the water quality.

All crucial jobs in making sure the tap water that flows daily into more than 330,000 homes is safe to drink.

Given the national climate following September 11, and fear that future terrorist attacks might target public services, the city is spending at least $87,000 for a local private investigator to recommend how to expand an existing security policy aimed at making sure no water employees pose a public threat.

Is it money well spent?

At best, the consultant will simply recommend ways to enhance programs that have been in place for years. For more than 20 years, Water Services employees have undergone background checks. Random drug testing is already being done on all water employees who have commercial driver's licenses. And since August 2001, random drug screening for all new employees has been in place.

What the study won't do, according to city officials, is make it easier to detect possible terrorists. Any new scrutiny put in place based on the study will only help identify employees operating equipment under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The council vote last week to approve the study came the same day the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a warning that al-Qaida terrorist members may have been targeting dams and water-supply systems in the United States. U.S. forces in Afghanistan have already acknowledged finding diagrams of nuclear power plants.

Ken Kroski, a city public information officer, calls the plan a solid back-up to existing security measures. It also shows a focus by public agencies on enhanced safety, especially in the wake of September 11.

"I think it's an additional factor that could help us pinpoint a person," he says. "Is it the primary one? No. There are a lot of ways to filter out deadly intent. This may be of assistance to that."

In addition to enhanced employee checks, the city has, since September 11, increased the presence of private security guards at all departments, including Water Services.

According to city documents, the study will identify "specific positions" in the Water Services department that have "a direct relationship to public health safety" and therefore must be monitored more closely.

Those positions involve employees whose jobs "could result in a threat to the health and safety of employees, co-workers, the public and/or the environment if performed incorrectly."

The city maintains five water treatment plants that provide millions of gallons of water a day to city customers. The average use per day in Phoenix during the summer is 423 million gallons; during the winter, that drops to 185 million gallons. The city also has two wastewater treatment plants that can handle roughly 220 million gallons of wastewater per day.

The city won't know for some time which employees should be tested, Kroski says.

The person responsible for making that determination is Jim Humphrey, a 31-year Phoenix Police Department veteran who also served as Peoria's police chief. He now runs a private investigation and consulting firm.

In October 2001, the city mailed requests to 110 companies seeking applicants to conduct the study. Only one company -- Humphrey's -- responded.

His responsibilities include identifying and justifying the at-risk positions within the Water Department; establishing a protocol for the city to follow in testing employees that adheres to state and federal law; and recommending to city leaders how the program should be implemented and who the city should assign to make sure it works.

Humphrey's contract can be extended to a second year, if necessary.

One area where the city must tread lightly is implementation, especially given the national outcry over federal requests for police roundups of people considered to be a possible threat.

Kroski says the city's plan is to focus on specific jobs, not employees.

"We're going by what they do for the department, not who they are," he says. "It's not like we're picking out any nationalities. [It's] strictly the position they're in."

One area the study will not address is how the city plans to alert more than 1.3 million consumers if a serious threat is detected.

Kroski says the city currently monitors its water supply daily by conducting sampling at each of the five treatment plants.

"It's a constant monitoring process," he says. "That helps us to respond quickly should something happen."

The city adheres to specific guidelines mandated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, as far as notification is concerned. In the event of a major crisis, Kroski says the city will rely on various outlets, including the media, to alert the public.

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John W. Allman