After hack at Florida plant, local officials say layers of security keep water safe

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – A day after Pinellas County authorities reported a cyber intruder’s failed attempt to poison the water on Friday at a plant near Tampa, officials in Miami-Dade and Broward counties said water treatment plants in South Florida are safe.

A supervisor at the Oldsmar water plant reported witnessing when the hacker changed the sodium hydroxide settings and quickly fixed it. Authorities said there were other safeguards that would have caught the chemical change. The area was hosting the Super Bowl on Sunday.

The FBI was still investigating the breach of the remote-access system on Tuesday. A. Selcuk Uluagac leads Florida International University’s Cyber-Physical Systems Security Lab. He said other systems such as the smart grid, oil and gas plants, and transportation systems use similar technologies.

“These systems should not be directly connected to the internet and also they should be layered,” Uluagac said.

The Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department produces 320 million gallons a day of drinking water and serves nearly 2.3 million residents and thousands of tourists. Jose Cueto, the interim director of the department, said the public needs to know it’s safe and reliable.

“At no point is our treatment process vulnerable to bad actors and those type of security threats,” Cueto said on Tuesday.

Lars Schmekel, Miami-Dade County’s chief information security officer, said the local Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition, a control system of software and hardware elements allow them to monitor the process.

“There are multiple levels of authentication,” Schmekel said.

In Broward County, there is a similar system of checks and balances. Joann Hussey, a spokeswoman for the city of Hollywood, said there is staff onsite around the clock, alarms that sound when things are off and only a small team is authorized to make adjustments.

“There is no automated way for those chemicals to be added into the system if a hacker was able to get into the system,” Hussey said. “Those chemicals are added manually.”

Alan Garcia, the director of the Broward County Water and Wastewater Services, said the public has absolutely nothing to worry about.

“We are aware of the potentials and we have taken a lot of steps to mitigate any potential for hacking in our system,” Garcia said.

About the Authors:

Terrell Forney joined Local 10 News in October 2005 as a general assignment reporter. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, but a desire to escape the harsh winters of the north brought him to South Florida.

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.