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How local water treatment plants keep systems safe from hackers

Published: Feb. 9, 2021 at 9:14 PM EST
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MISHAWAKA/ELKHART, Ind. (WNDU) - After a water treatment operator in Florida thwarted a remote hack into the city’s system that could have poisoned residents with increased amounts of lye, 16 New Now investigates the chances of a similar attack happening in Michiana.

“Should it happen here, we have several safeguards in place that it would be caught in a timely manner where it would not cause harm to the public,” said Laura Kolo, Manger of Utility Services at Elkhart Public Works.

At Elkhart Public Works, the water treatment system isn’t networked - meaning it cannot be as easily hacked into remotely. Also, the Elkhart system is in a secure location that is manned 24/7. And if somebody broke into there, there are additional computer logins.

Elkhart Public Works does not use lye in water treatment but does use chlorine to disinfect water. Since amounts are constantly monitored, an operator would immediately know if there’s too little or too much of chlorine in the water.

“Alarms go off,” said Kolo, “so that is a safeguard to help the operator on duty realize something is going on there and to shut the system down or make adjustments.”

The system at Mishawaka Utilities cannot be hacked into remotely because they use a network of radios instead of the internet. Like Elkhart, lye is also not used to treat water; sodium hypochlorite - or very strong household bleach - fluoride, and phosphates are instead used.

Additionally, there is always an on-call operator. Plus, staff are always monitoring any suspicious adjustments.

“Our plants are locked, alarmed, and fenced, and gated. And if anybody accesses or tries to access the gate - or get over, we have, again, those are alarmed. It goes back to our phones. Instantly, we can send police or anybody at the plant to see what’s happened,” said Dave Majewski, Manager of the Mishawaka Utilities Water Division.

South Bend Municipal Utilities outlined its safeguards in a statement:

“Cybersecurity is a top priority for South Bend Municipal Utilities (SBMU). SBMU devotes considerable time and resources to cybersecurity preparedness and response to protect its water and wastewater treatment plants to safeguard public health and safety. There are several safety measures in place to ensure residents have clean, safe drinking water. Alarm systems are installed at our water treatment plants with 24/7 online analyzers that monitor the treated water leaving each of the locations before it is pumped into the water system. SBMU uses a real-time centralized system to remotely monitor and control water system operations. This system is not directly connected to the internet. SBMU also regularly reviews and updates its Risk and Resiliency and Emergency Response plans with rigorous attention to cybersecurity and uses those plans to bolster cybersecurity defenses and ensure that best practices are in place.”

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