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EPA Science Matters Newsletter: Advancing Ways to Clean Up Drinking Water Systems (Published November 2013)

EPA researchers and partners are building the nation's first "Water Security Test Bed".

Photo of water supply facility

EPA is the federal agency responsible for working with water utilities to improve protection of systems from being contaminated and to clean up systems that become contaminated.  Purposeful or inadvertent contamination of distribution systems can result in large amounts of infrastructure and water that must be cleaned.  Contamination incidents can be caused by, for example, natural disasters such as Superstorm Sandy or by terrorists hoping to cause grave harm.

As such, advancing the science and engineering of decontaminating pipe systems and safely disposing of high-volumes of contaminated water are high priorities for the EPA. To help address these science gaps, Agency homeland security researchers are developing a Water Security Test Bed (WSTB).

Currently being constructed at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Idaho National Laboratory, the test bed will replicate a typical municipal drinking water piping system in a roughly 200-foot by 400-foot grid using 30-year-old, eight-inch pipes. Researchers are building the grid above ground for easy access during experiments, and to facilitate fast leak detection.

Over the next several years, EPA and partner researchers will conduct experiments using simulants of various biological, chemical, and radioactive materials that simulate high toxic versions of these agents.  Approaches to contamination detection, infrastructure decontamination, and water treatment developed at lab and pilot scale will be demonstrated at this “full” sized system. 

Treatments to be tested may include chlorination and flushing protocols, use of advanced oxidative processes, or perhaps emptying and fumigating the pipes.  The research team plans to connect the test bed to a building with a room set up like a typical residential bathroom to investigate how users of the facility might be exposed to contaminants in water. The exposure of humans to this contaminated water will be studied as well.

EPA is opening up this test bed research to additional potential collaborators such as agencies within the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, universities, water utilities, and foundations interested in water security research. 

“Idaho National Laboratory’s partnership with EPA in developing America’s first Water Security Test Bed will continue the Agency’s legacy of protecting and safeguarding the nation’s drinking water and infrastructure,” says Steve Aumeier, Ph.D, Associate Director for Energy and Environment at the Idaho National Laboratory.