WSSC on ‘high alert’ after water hack in Florida

A hacker trying to poison the water supply in the city of Oldsmar, Florida, last week raised new concerns nationwide, but it highlighted a familiar threat within the water industry.

“Did this place us on high alert? Absolutely,” said David McDonough, director of police and homeland security at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

McDonough said, however, that such a threat is not new or surprising.

“We’re always watching for information on threats and vulnerabilities, whatever they might be,” he said. “We’re actively trying to defend against them every day.”

The WSSC is responsible for drinking water and wastewater treatment in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland.

McDonough said the utility gets constant updates on potential threats from local, state and federal authorities. “We have dedicated cybersecurity personnel,” he said.

McDonough added that the utility has water operators, supervisors and security officers watching the system around-the-clock, and that 500,000 water quality tests are done throughout the system each year.

It was a water supervisor in Oldsmar who foiled the hacker’s plan Friday, noticing what was happening and immediately putting a stop to it.

The unidentified hacker used a remote-access program shared by water plant workers to increase the amount of sodium hydroxide in the water supply. Sodium hydroxide, also called lye, is a caustic chemical used to treat water acidity, but the compound is also found in cleaning supplies such as soaps and drain cleaners.

Investigators said it wasn’t immediately clear where the attack came from — whether the hacker was domestic or foreign.

The FBI, along with the Secret Service and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, are investigating.

Oldsmar officials have since disabled the remote-access system, and said other safeguards were in place to prevent the increased chemical level from getting into the water.

Officials warned other city leaders in the region — which was hosting the Super Bowl — about the incident and suggested they check their systems.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow @WTOP on Twitter to engage in conversation about this article and others.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2021 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up