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Manhole security and U.S. critical infrastructure

Source:HS Dailywire.com • Published 18 October 2007


Manholes are small, inconspicuous, and unattended; they offer easy access to vital underground infrastructure, so we had better think of ways to make them more secure, and do so quickly.

In the mid-1980s there was much talk in the United States about the country’s infrastructure. Indeed, Gary Hart of Colorado, who ran against Walter Mondale in the 1984 Democratic Party’s presidential primaries, made investment in and improvement of U.S. infrastructure the central theme of his campaign. The word “infrastructure” was repeated so many times, that a New Yorker’s cartoonist could not resist and made it the subject of a cartoon: The cartoon depicted three men in over-alls and hard hats standing next to an open manhole, surrounded by orange cones and a yellow plastic strip. They are busy placing a big sign to warn drivers of the road work underway. The sign reads: “Slow Down – Infrastructuralists at Work.” More than twenty years on, and with the terrorist threat to the United States demonstrated by the 9/11 attacks, attention again is being focused on the relationship between the humble and often overlooked manhole and the nation’s critical infrastructure. To be more precise, more attention should be focused on the vulnerability of the U.S. infrastructure created by unattended and easy-to-access manholes. This is the message of a six-year old Garden City, New York-based Manhole Barrier Security Systems (MBSS). The company’s leading product, Manhole Barrier Device (MBD), is a self-contained manhole locking cover that secures manholes against unauthorized access. It was granted a utility patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The argument that unattended manholes pose a considerable security threat to U.S. infrastructure is persuasively made in a White Paper, titled “Manhole Security: Protecting America’s Critical Underground Infrastructure,” available from the company. The paper was written by Dr. Irwin Pikus, a physicist and attorney who for twenty-five years served in different position in the U.S. government dealing with science, technology, and national security. He is a former commissioner of the president’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection (CCIP). Here we can only summarize some of the main points made in the paper. Those in government and the private sector interested in and concerned about infrastructure protection should ask for a copy.

Much of the U.S. – and any other any nation’s -- critical infrastructure lies underground: Communications (telephone lines, cables, fiber optics, switching, relaying, and control systems); electric power (power generating stations, transmission lines, control and transformer systems, power distribution systems); natural gas and related energy (natural or manufactured gas, gasoline, and other petroleum products are transported through subsurface pipelines; centrally produced steam is also distributed through underground pipes); water supply (most of the water distribution system, water storage, and some treatment facilities and raw water transport lines are below ground); wastewater and storm water (disposal of wastewater and storm water runoff is done largely through underground pipes and tunnels); transportation (much rail transportation in urban areas, including commuter, long distance, and cargo traffic, is underground); underground courses (in cities, such course provide unmonitored and uncontrolled access to buildings and facilities).

This complex infrastructure must be routinely and continuously maintained, repaired, upgraded, and monitored. Manholes provide access to underground infrastructure, and since this infrastructure is vast and sprawling, there are many manholes (the company calculates that there are some twenty-two million manholes in the United States). Manhole covers are typically round to prevent them from falling inside the hole, are made primarily from iron, and typically weigh around 100 pounds. Manhole ownership varies from location to location, and since different manholes are owned by different companies or entities, most provide access to only one or two utilities. In some cities, though, a large number of manholes provide access to several elements of the infrastructures. Manhole covers rely on their weight to stay put under foot and motor traffic, and also to thwart unauthorized access by vandals. There are also a number of way to secure manholes by controlling access to the cover: Locking the cover itself, detecting intruders, or physically sealing or hardening of the manhole.

Unprotected manholes offer terrorists a relatively easy way to inflict damage which ranges from the merely disruptive to the seriously debilitating. A terrorist attack-through-manholes could be aimed to achieve one or more of the following: Corruption of communications capabilities (interfering, jamming, or corrupting signals into telecommunications systems); complete disruption of critical utility service (severing electric power, water, gas, or telecommunications lines; destroying key regulatory and control systems); contamination of water or air (introducing a toxic biological or chemical agents into drinking water; release of chemical or biological agents in a mass transit system); theft and misappropriation (tapping information flows; siphoning energy; gaining surreptitious control over information systems); divert attention from another larger attack; disrupt critical utility service, resulting in hampering first response and emergency and rescue missions aimed to assist with another attack; or use conduits to inject and transport gas or chemical vapors or liquids into buildings to force an evacuation, introduce poison, or as a means to facilitate an explosion. The White Paper cites various studies of simulated attacks on urban infrastructure to make the point that such attacks may result in serious damage and many casualties.

The sheer number of manholes in the United States makes protection of all them a daunting task. The company suggests prioritizing manholes into four tiers, with Tier I comprising the most critical and high-risk manholes. In Tier I we find manholes for which the risk level is high and the consequences of attack severe. These manholes are found in strategic locations in urban centers, key infrastructure intersections, and near centers of business, industry, and government. Tier II consists of manholes for which the risk level is moderate to high, and the consequences of attack moderate to sever. These manholes are found near significant landmarks, transportation hubs, and locations of public gathering. Tier III comprises manholes for which the risk level is moderate to low and for which the consequences of attack are moderate to low. These manholes are found in suburban areas and in rural and agricultural regions. Tier IV consists of manholes for which the risk level is low and the consequences of attack are low as well. These manholes are found in rural and low-density areas, national parks, and the like.

The White Paper argues that the most practical, effective, and affordable solution to protecting critical underground infrastructure is to secure Tier I and Tier II manholes. We said earlier that there are a number of methods for securing manholes, among them intrusion detection, television surveillance, and hardening. These methods do not provide a satisfying answer to manhole vulnerability. Intrusion detection and television surveillance are detection mechanisms, not prevention devices. Hardening, or physically sealing the covers, is expensive and inefficient. It can take up to two hours to weld a manhole cover shut -- and up to one hour to open the manhole if access is needed for maintenance and repair (after which, the cover has to be welded shut again). Moreover, if there is a need to enter a manhole in an emergency, the fact that it is welded shut makes easy and quick access impossible, prolonging outages or exacerbating the problem which brought about the need for emergency access in the first place. The company says that its MBD combines security with easy, quick access in time of need. It combines a physical barrier to unauthorized access with a coded key lock which allows those who know the code quick access.

The price of one MBD is $650, but the company offers volume discounts. The company boasts quite a few customers who have purchased and installed its manhole barrier device, among them municipalities, telecoms, cable TV operators, electric and gas companies, nuclear power plants, sewer and water systems operators, transit systems, airport and port authorities, military bases, college campuses, and industrial facilities.

The company proposes several measures which would improve manhole protection – and thus, infrastructure protection -- in the United States. Cynics may say that such proposals would serve the company’s own interests, but there is no necessary contradiction between doing good and doing well. We believe there is merit to these proposals, and DHS, Congress, and state and municipal governments would do well to consider them seriously:

1. Fashion new statutory requirements that Tier I and Tier II manholes be secured by both public and private sector entities. Require the owners and operators of manholes to assess vulnerabilities and identify Tier I and Tier II manholes.

2. Appropriate funds for urban centers and strategic locations to purchase and install manhole barrier devices for all Tier I and Tier II manholes.

3. Examine incentives such as tax and insurance credits for owners of manholes, including municipalities and corporations – especially utilities and telecommunication companies -- to purchase manhole barrier security devices, and direct DHS to include manhole security in best practices, policies, and procedures.

4. Support further study of manhole vulnerability and security issues by GAO, CRS, and other government research and evaluation bodies

Pikus concludes his White Papers by saying: “Without manhole security, the United States risks suffering significant consequences resulting from an attack on underground infrastructure including incalculable economic damages, large numbers of civilian casualties, and considerable disruptions to our urban way of life.” He has a point. The lyrics in "For Want of A Nail" encourage children to apply logical progression to the consequences of their actions, and remind adults that inattention to small and seemingly unimportant things may lead to catastrophic results. It may not be as easy to come up with a rhyme for “For Want of Attention to Manhole Covers,” but the point MBSS is making is well taken: Inattention to small and seemingly unimportant things such as manholes and their security may have serious consequences.

HS Dailywire.com



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