Terror-able water

Marc Keyser, your friendly neighborhood anti-terrorism activist, has been telling Elk Grove residents it’s easy to poison our water. Local officials say he’s all wet.

Marc Keyser

Marc Keyser

Photo by Jill Wagner

To the suburban woman who peered out through her screen door, Marc Keyser must have resembled a friendly neighborhood representative for Jehovah or Joseph Smith. In his pleated slacks and his short-sleeved, button-down shirt, the pleasant-looking, middle-aged man at her door must have seemed extremely innocuous, until he spoke. As Elk Grove’s lone anti-terrorism activist, Keyser’s rhetoric is designed to scare the bejesus out of his neighbors.

“Would you like to see more done to protect our water against terrorism?” Keyser asked, hitting the words “water” and “terrorism” hard to make sure their meanings sunk in. “I know that sounds a little strange,” he added, laughing in his nervous way to take the bite out. He pushed his clipboard forward.

As executive director of his own registered nonprofit, Neighborhood Terror Watch, Keyser has been collecting donations from his neighbors for months, getting their signatures on his petition and talking with them about what he perceives to be the great terrorist threat facing Elk Grove: open access to the area’s water supply.

The woman, who seemed suddenly exhausted, opened the screen door and glanced at the color pictures attached to the clipboard. One pictured a van parked next to a water-treatment facility’s security fence. The van’s back door was open, and inside sat a large barrel stamped with an alarming yellow symbol of radioactivity. A pale blue hose led from the barrel toward the fence topped with razor wire. Next to a ladder, the hose snaked over the fence and disappeared.

A second photo had been taken from inside the water treatment facility. The other end of the hose had been attached to a valve on an exposed pipe that rose out of a concrete slab. An enormous water tank squatted in the distance. The two photos together vividly illustrated how easy it looked to pump poison into the water system.

Just like most of Keyser’s neighbors in Elk Grove, the woman nodded sadly. Yes, of course she’d like to see more done to protect her water from terrorists.

Keyser was quite proud of his photos. They had been taken at the site of a water plant undergoing construction, and the fact that he’d been able to walk in unhindered, hook up a hose to the water pipe and take his own photos seemed to prove the need for improved security. The fact that the plant wasn’t yet on-line and functioning as part of the system didn’t matter to him. The plant still offered a potential access point, and Keyser was all about protecting potential access points.

The photos were just the newest in a series of images Keyser had staged as part of step one of his campaign: to introduce residents to the threat of terrorism in their own backyards. Keyser wanted to collect enough signatures to convince the city council that more security for water plants and holding tanks was in high demand. He also wanted to form a nationwide network of Neighborhood Watch-style groups on the lookout for evidence of terrorist plots, and he also wanted donations.

When Keyser’s photos caused concern in the community, he encouraged that concern, telling his neighbors, “It would take less than a minute for terrorists to get over that fence and pump 400, 500 gallons of anthrax or pesticides into our water.”

On www.business-terror-watch.org, a Web site designed to take his campaign national, Keyser elaborated: “How would the water department know the water was poisoned? They would know after people started getting sick and dying in a cluster group.

“If a young mother was giving her newborn baby a bath, and the baby had a seizure and died, and the mother was having convulsions and couldn’t even reach for a phone to call for help, that’s when the authorities would suspect there might be a problem with our water.

“What if the terrorists pumped a cocktail of deadly poisons in the outgoing water line, including radioactive waste, and it contaminated the plumbing and everything the water touched in people’s homes?”

Sound like the kind of nightmare scenario you’d see played out in some Hollywood scare feature starring Samuel L. Jackson? It’s the kind of nightmare that Keyser promotes as the likeliest scenario if we don’t lock up our water-treatment plants and water tanks immediately.

The fact that Keyser’s scenarios sound like movie plots doesn’t make them impossible—the events of 9/11 were painfully close to such fictions—but some water-department officials say he’s off the mark. His scenarios aren’t impossible, but they’re highly unlikely. Regardless of how many times Keyser hears this, he marches on and continues to promote the idea that terrorists are targeting our water. Right now.

“We’re raising funds to go after the City Council to make sure they lock up our water,” Keyser told the woman at her screen door. “Concerned people are donating $20 to help the campaign.”

When the woman sighed and said she couldn’t afford to donate, Keyser quickly but gently offered to accept a postdated check. The woman closed the screen door and went to find her checkbook. Keyser’s polite, good-natured presentation, coupled with his horrifying scenarios, have made him quite the successful canvasser. He’s hit a nerve.

Keyser’s corporation had been called Consumers Action League before 9/11, after which he launched Neighborhood Terror Watch. The attacks struck him as not only tragic but also extremely, even profoundly, meaningful. He spent months studying potential weaknesses in our infrastructure and decided that an attack on our water system was a foregone conclusion. In Keyser’s mind, it’s just a matter of time.

“These terrorists did more damage than Pearl Harbor,” he said of Al Qaeda.

Photo by Jill Wagner

He notes that they shut down the stock market, stalled business in New York and grounded the airlines, which are still struggling to recover. These unforeseen results must have led to an evolutionary leap in the minds of the terrorists. By putting the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time, which Keyser defines as “strategic terrorism,” terrorists transformed our mighty air-travel system into a highly elaborate system of weaponry—that they didn’t even have to engineer or build.

Our extensive water system must be the next infrastructure target for attack, Keyser reasons. He theorizes that with enough poisonous or radioactive material, terrorists could turn a rich suburb into a deadly waste site overnight, which would destroy the value of the property and panic residents of every suburb in the nation. No one would know what had happened, Keyser said, until people started getting sick.

It’s such an ingenious plan, he feels, how could it be anything but inevitable?

“We want our water locked up now,” has become Keyser’s battle cry, and Elk Grove residents are listening in increasing numbers, in spite of concerns about Keyser’s methods.

“Aren’t you giving terrorists ideas?” residents sometimes wonder after viewing his detailed photographs and listening to his terrorist plots.

Keyser has a quick answer: Terrorists are already thinking about this stuff, he says. It’s the non-terrorists who need to consider it—and force their local water departments to make some serious changes in their security plans.

When Keyser was confronted by SN&R with proof that water departments already were implementing new security measures, he claimed to be unfamiliar with their efforts, or he tended to scoff at the most rudimentary measures, including things like extra guards and security cameras.

“Great,” he said sarcastically. “If terrorists poison our water, at least we’ll have a picture of them after the fact.”

If Keyser is unimpressed by water departments’ current security measures, the water purveyors are equally unimpressed with his terrorism scenarios and photographs, though their opinions have had no effect on his campaign.

When engineers looked at Keyser’s staged photographs and explained that the water pressure in the pipes would make it impossible for someone to force chemicals inside, Keyser found pumps on the market that he believed could produce enough pressure to override the pressure in the pipes.

When engineers mentioned that terrorists would need immense amounts of poison to have any effect, Keyser started researching ways of getting tanker trucks full of hazardous materials.

Said one representative from Elk Grove Water Service: “This is the way to terrorize a water department.”

Some water officials have even decided that Keyser is so intent on distributing ever more refined plans for attacking the system that he must not be as interested in improving water security as he is in collecting donations door to door. If he were, they say, he’d be in contact with the departments, not broadcasting dangerous terrorist strategies randomly on the Internet and on flyers throughout neighborhoods.

So far, Keyser has made no attempts to speak with any officials at Elk Grove Water Service, one of the area’s two primary water providers. He did send a letter to Sacramento County’s Zone 40, the other major source, but has had no other contact. Zone 40 responded with a letter saying that the water systems were quite secure and he shouldn’t be concerned.

Keyser talks about water systems as if they can be punctured with a nail, but most water is kept in secure reservoirs underground. Aboveground water tanks sometimes store supplemental water to handle the demand during peak hours. The above-ground pipes that are visible at water-treatment facilities and around communities often control the water pressure in the pipes by making sure that no water flows back from a home or a business into the water system.

In spite of Keyser’s fears that water providers are ignoring potential threats, every water district in Sacramento and Elk Grove has improved security since 9/11, and further improvements are on the way.

Roland Pang, water and sewer superintendent for the City of Sacramento, still remembers just a few short years ago when departments were so proud of the enormity and the efficiency of their water systems that they invited foreign dignitaries and any other interested parties to visit treatment plants when they were in town. Pang said that engineers happily would explain entire systems and how they worked.

That has changed post-9/11. Guards now watch the front gates and call in visitors by name, checking their driver’s licenses and making sure that someone on the site of the treatment plant is expecting them. Superintendents like Pang are shyer with details now. They prefer to talk about the plant in generalities and politely refuse to identify any vulnerability in the system.

In a spacious conference room looking over part of the plant, Pang dragged his finger across an enlarged aerial photograph of the treatment system. He pointed out the crude looking shed that houses the pump that pulls water from the American River. And then, he drew his finger through the facility’s open channels, where the water is treated and where the debris is allowed to sink to the bottom so that clean water can be skimmed off the top. Pang pointed at a large, concrete slab. Underneath, way underneath, was the reservoir where the treated water is stored and distributed. The City of Sacramento treats as many as 100 million gallons of water per day.

Roland Pang, the water and sewer superintendent for Sacramento, believes water facilities are too accessible but that no amount of security can protect them completely.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Though the water in the open channels is uncovered, which likely would infuriate Keyser, Pang said it’s unlikely that the department will pay to have them covered any time soon. If departments decide to cover them, they have to meet other regulations associated with what becomes a “habitable structure.” Pang fears that they’d have to build bathrooms and other unnecessary amenities.

From the picture, there’s no obvious way to reach the water once it’s been treated and pumped to the contained reservoir. The connection from the reservoir to homes and businesses is also underground, invisible. But, in spite of the system’s apparent inaccessibility, Pang admits that he worries about attack, too, though not the quiet, covert kind of attack Keyser imagines. Instead, Pang imagines armed gunmen breaking into the plant, or another plane crash. He talks about these possibilities with a surprising nonchalance, as if it’s something to which he and his peers have become accustomed.

To fend off any small-scale local attack, new security cameras have been installed, and a fence topped with razor wire rings the facility. “But you’re just keeping the honest people out,” said Pang.

Luckily, if terrorists did target the system, the tremendous capacity of a large plant would work against them. As soon as any contaminants were discovered, the whole plant could be shut down and cleaned.

Thirty years ago, Pang said, officials worried that someone might try to dump enough LSD into the water to affect a whole community. He remembers working it out with colleagues and realizing that if you factored in the dilution, LSD-toting terrorists would need a tanker truck full of the stuff to have any effect at all. So, officials decided, all we have to do is look out for tanker trucks trying to get into the facility without authorization. But how much would it cost to fill a tanker truck with LSD? Officials reasoned it would take $5 million and figured it was extremely unlikely that anyone could produce and transport $5 million worth of LSD without alerting someone. And what if the plan were discovered? That would be $5 million down the drain, so to speak.

Pang feels the same logic works today. Most attempts to poison the water would be extremely expensive, impractical and nearly impossible to attempt without detection.

Keyser disagrees. Looking for ways around every possible challenge, Keyser dreamed up a scenario in which terrorists hijacked a tanker full of hazardous materials, maybe even a whole fleet of such tankers. In his scenario, the hijacking is never discovered, and the terrorists are free to drive from facility to facility, hooking into exposed pipes and pumping in an infinite supply of toxins.

Though Pang doesn’t worry about that particular plot, Sacramento did take advantage recently of grants offered by the Environmental Protection Agency to assess the possibility of terrorist attacks and develop emergency response plans. Like all other departments serving at least 100,000 residents, Sacramento won the $115,000 grant.

So far, according to Roy Rathbun, the EPA’s grant program lead, approximately 400 public water departments nationwide and approximately 30 private departments have been awarded similar grants. But the grants only cover assessment, not implementation, which means that water districts must determine for themselves how much increased security to pay for and how much to charge their customers for it.

For water officials like Pang, the question isn’t whether or not to improve security, but what kinds of security measures are practical and cost effective.

Keyser sees the issue much more simply. He wants to see all access points locked up, regardless of how many millions of dollars it could cost. How much would it cost if a plot were successful, he wonders. How much would it have been worth to avoid the attacks of last September?

Keyser also thinks that water-department officials have an obligation to acknowledge their weaknesses and let the public know just how easy it is to get into a treatment plant or onto the site of a holding tank. The public should be briefed and then allowed to vote on how far their local departments should go to secure systems.

“I have a deep, profound respect for democracy,” Keyser said.

No water official is likely to take Keyser’s request for more information on vulnerabilities seriously, however. There’s always the possibility that homegrown terrorists—such as Kevin Ray Patterson and Charles Dennis Kiles, the two Elk Grove militia men who’d planned to blow up two enormous propane tanks on New Year’s Eve 2000—would take advantage of any admitted weakness.

Operations Manager Tony Ouellette pulled up to the largest treatment plant managed by the Elk Grove Water Service. Superintendent John Ornellas turned off an alarm at the gate and entered, and Ouellette turned off the motion sensors sending frail, red lines through the facility. The two men walked over to a big, black, mesh cage covering a pipe similar to the one Keyser had photographed.

Ouellette had someone on his staff custom-build the cages and said that they now covered a number of above-ground air vents, as well as the ports officials open to check the water level or to test for chlorine content. Ouellette also locked heavy chains around key valves that control water pressure. Guards roam from facility to facility and vary their patterns so that no one can predict when certain tanks or plants will be under observation. His staff carried these suggestions and others back from security meetings with other utilities.

Ouellette insists with conviction that his department is secure, but he readily agrees that no facility could be 100 percent secure.

“We’ve done all we can,” Ouellette said, “but that doesn’t mean we’re not looking into more options.”

In the Elk Grove water district, residents draw their water from underground wells. As much as 100 feet underground, porous rock allows water to move freely from place to place. The water can be pumped, drawn up through pipes, treated, and fed into the distribution system.

Tony Ouellette, the operations manager for the Elk Grove Water Service, poses with the cages he had custom-made to protect water pipes.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Short of covering the entire operation in concrete, Ouellette has done just about everything Keyser suggested to protect the district’s largest plant, and yet the two men have never spoken. (Just before press time, the assistant city manager for Elk Grove had set up a meeting between Keyser, Ouellette and a representative from Zone 40. When the two water departments heard SN&R would attend, they chose to cancel, citing security issues.)

“We work for our customers,” Ouellette said. “If the clients say they want it all encased in concrete, we’ll do it.” But he added that the most extensive security upgrades would come at a heavy cost, probably to consumers and probably for something that would never be necessary.

“The solution to pollution is dilution,” said Ouellette, echoing Pang’s idea that it would take a prohibitively large volume of chemicals to affect water customers seriously.

When asked whether the same logic would apply should the poisonous material be radioactive, Ouellette looked taken aback.

“I can’t even imagine,” he said.

The profile of a terrorist, as it’s been explained to utilities managers, is that of a person who likes immediate gratification, huge amounts of media attention and, in some cases, martyrdom. Though the water system is a precious resource for Americans, the slow poisoning of this resource would not fit the profile of a typical terrorist’s crime.

This is where Keyser most disagrees. He believes that the attacks of 9/11 changed the nature of the game forever. He assumes that financial loss and the eventual destruction of whole communities would greatly appeal to the new 21st-century terrorist mind.

Though all such thinking is necessarily speculative, terrorist experts, according to Robin Woods of the EPA, agree with water officials. Because of the difficulty of infiltration and the enormous quantities of poisons needed, the possibility of full-scale attacks on the water system is considered extremely remote. But that didn’t stop the federal government from giving the EPA the money to fund its security grant program.

Keyser’s detailed list of nightmarish scenarios has effectively thrilled and chilled many of his neighbors into signing petitions and donating funds, but when Keyser unintentionally canvassed the home of an engineer from Elk Grove Water Service, stories of the confrontation lost him some credibility with officials like Ouellette.

Jason Mathews, the water-treatment operator for Elk Grove Water Service, was getting ready for dinner one night when Keyser showed up. Without revealing his own identity, Mathews looked at Keyser’s pictures and listened to his spiel. According to Mathews, Keyser said there had been attempted acts of terrorism in the area (an accusation Keyser emphatically denies).

Keyser apparently asked Mathews for a $25 donation, which is when Mathews identified himself as an operator. Rather than engage him in a conversation, Keyser became defensive, said Mathews was “part of the problem” and quickly retreated.

Mathews started to fear that Keyser was some sort of fraud, so he jumped into his car and followed Keyser around the neighborhood, challenging him to meet a department supervisor who also lived in the area. Keyser refused and kept moving. Mathews was further concerned when he called the number on Keyser’s flyer and found it disconnected. Keyser, who occasionally transposes numerals, had misprinted his own phone number. When Mathews was given the right number, he called and got the Neighborhood Terror Watch office, which is actually a small computer room set off by screens in Keyser’s girlfriend’s elaborately decorated home.

Mathews remains unconvinced. The fact that Keyser was collecting money and avoiding water officials who might poke holes in his theories was too suspicious.

As an operator, Mathews checks for possible security breaches all the time. He even checks to see if anyone has messed with the combination locks. Keyser’s suggestion that the plants were unsafe was both an insult and, in his opinion, a falsehood.

Keyser’s legitimacy has been called into question before. His corporation, a registered nonprofit, goes by the name Neighborhood Terror Watch, but the Secretary of State’s records show that the same corporation has, within the last 10 years, gone by the names: The AIDS Watch, Consumers Action League, Taxpayers for Justice, California Coalition and Homeland Defense, a name which Keyser said the corporation is in the process of going back to using.

Though each of the corporation’s name changes was legal, the proliferation of causes suggests that Keyser’s interest in any one cause goes only so far. The lack of continuity does not seem to concern him.

Neighborhood Terror Watch also was suspended from doing business in April of 2002, according to the Franchise Tax Board. With characteristic nonchalance, Keyser said he knew nothing about the suspension but that it was probably a combination of some neglected paperwork and the kind of “mudslinging” that every organization for social change attracts. He said he has since contacted the tax board and begun to prepare the required tax forms and the list of officers.

Though Keyser’s lack of interest in keeping all the details straight could be interpreted as a sign of a problem, it’s more likely that Keyser is an inattentive businessman by nature. It never seems to surprise him that numbers are out of order or that paperwork wasn’t turned in on time.

Keyser thinks of his corporation as one glorious string of experiments, he said. Though he admits that none of his previous campaigns was ever very successful, he feels that he has latched onto an issue now that’s so important that he’s bound to make a difference. With the fervor of a political activist, Keyser speaks of his struggle in terms of the public against the government. While Keyser gathers signature after signature and donation after donation to “go after the City Council,” he’s oblivious to the fact that the City Council doesn’t regulate water departments.

Keyser uses a water facility that’s under construction to stage pictures showing how a terrorist might try to poison the water.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Sitting in a coffee shop where he conducts much of his business during the day, Keyser looked exasperated at the mention of money and paperwork. Everyone’s always asking small nonprofits about how they spend their money, he claimed. Was anyone asking the water district how they were spending their money?

Keyser said he lives off a monthly $500 consulting fee from Neighborhood Terror Watch, and claimed that he works nonstop for the organization, which suggests that he’s doing more than just collecting signatures and donations. But he hasn’t organized meetings, asked community members to join him in any organizing activities or spoken to legislators about future legislation. He said he works much better by himself, which makes him an unlikely leader of a movement.

Keyser insisted that his goal was first to “build a base for his organization.” He said he wants about 2,000 signatures in support of increased water security before he moves on to the next step, which is yet undecided. His main goal is to educate the public so that it will have enough information to join in future actions.

Working with the water departments now, Keyser said, would be like trying to improve airport security by talking to the airport-security companies before 9/11. In a representative government, Keyser claimed, you have to rely on the politicians to take your message to the utilities.

To that end, and apparently out of concern that his fund-raising did look questionable, Keyser recently set up a meeting with Elk Grove Mayor Richard Soares.

Expecting to meet only Soares, Keyser said he walked into City Hall and sat down at a bench in the lobby. He said he remembers looking up at the high ceiling with its sprinklers and its fire alarms. He went into the bathroom and saw that the ceilings there were lower, and that the sprinklers were within reach.

Keyser then began mentally constructing an argument proving the building’s alarms and sprinkler systems weren’t secure enough to keep vandals from giving everybody in the building a shower. Even City Hall’s infrastructure could be used against it.

“That’s the kind of guy I am,” Keyser said.

The city engineer escorted Keyser through double doors into a room where the mayor waited with the chief of police.

What was he doing, they wanted to know.

Keyser proceeded to give a short presentation about the weaknesses of water security in the area, mentioning the public’s concern and his own thoughts on strategic terrorism.

The mayor listened but was unmoved.

As Soares said in an interview afterward, “We strongly disagree with his analysis. The likelihood of such an event is remote.”

If there ever were a reason to believe that the systems were under threat, then the city would respond, Soares told Keyser. But, in the meantime, the city was more concerned about the impressions Keyser was giving the community. Agreeing to disagree, the mayor dismissed Keyser within less than 15 minutes.

It’s these kinds of meetings that made Keyser so reluctant to deal with anyone besides his agreeable neighbors.

Though Keyser may be an unlikely champion of public safety, and his critics would like to dismiss him as an annoyance, Keyser estimates that he has collected approximately 1,500 signatures through door-to-door canvassing so far.

He also collected, according to his own estimation, approximately $30,000 in 2001. Though he claims to pay himself only $500 a month, his Web site says that his annual salary could vary between $20,000 and $50,000 a year, depending on the success of the campaign. This information is provided through an unusual link called “online financials” that supposedly offers an accurate peek at the organization’s spending habits. It offers two weeks’ worth of activity on the checking account and includes $1,044.00 in donations and ends with a balance of $933.22. Though it looks as if Keyser is basically raising funds to pay for his own fund-raising, he said there’s nothing illegal about people donating to whatever organization they choose and that much of his time is spent on extensive changes to the Web site, terrorism research and public education.

Keyser said he understands that even if Neighborhood Terror Watch eventually flourishes, complete infrastructure security is impossible. However, it can be improved. He points to the federal government’s insistence on increased airport security since 9/11. He also points to the two looming propane tanks in Elk Grove and the extensive layers of motion detectors and other security measures that now protect the tanks.

The community shouldn’t need a direct threat or a national tragedy in order to implement a water-security system similar to the extensive system that now protects those propane tanks, Keyser said.

He makes a compelling point. And, in spite of Keyser’s weaknesses as an organizer, in this case, the content of the message may continue to convince many Elk Grove residents to overlook the character of the messenger.