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Minot reviews cybersecurity measures

Florida incident heightens awareness for water plants

Jill Schramm/MDN Janet Parton, instrument technician at the Minot Water Treatment Plant, stands next to an instrument panel Monday that provides key technology control to the plant.

Staying on top of cybersecurity has been a focus at the Minot Water Treatment Plant for some time, but a recent hacking attempt on a Florida plant has heightened the awareness.

“It’s been something that’s been discussed in the industry for the last few years,” Jason Sorenson, City of Minot assistant public works director, said of cybersecurity. The city conducted a cybersecurity risk assessment last year at the water plant as part of an Environmental Protection Agency program under the American Water Infrastructure Act.

“As a result of that, we are writing basically a cybersecurity risk management program,” Sorenson said.

Minot’s Water Treatment Plant maintains security by remaining largely offline and by use of a robust firewall, he said.

The water plant’s Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition, or SCADA system, has a single online portal that allows an outside systems consultant to make adjustments as necessary.

“That’s where our firewall comes into play,” Sorenson said. “It’s basically inaccessible unless they have all the information that our consultant has.”

In Oldsmar, Florida, a hacker’s botched attempt earlier this month to poison the water supply in the city of about 15,000 people raised alarms about how vulnerable the nation’s 151,000 public water systems might be to more sophisticated intruders. The foiled hacking incident involved use of a remote access program shared by plant workers. The hacker increased the amount of lye, which is used to lower acidity but in high concentrations can be caustic and can burn. It’s found in drain cleaning products, according to a report on the incident by the Associated Press. A plant worker noticed the change as it was being made and reversed it.

Minot’s water plant is staffed 24/7, but Sorenson noted that isn’t the case with some smaller communities, although not all might have online access to their plants’ systems.

Since the Florida attack, Minot’s personnel have participated in webinars through the American Waterworks Association that have briefed them on the Oldsmar incident and have provided the latest recommendations for keeping a water plant’s technology system safe.

“We are in the process of implementing everything they have said we should be doing,” Sorenson said. “We had a lot of the right stuff in place. It’s just a matter of updating some things.”

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