Pinellas County officials say the city of Oldsmar faced attempted water supply poisoning

Water testing – Courtesy: Shutterstock – Image By Irina Kozorog

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said a team of local and federal officials is investigating an attempt to taint the city of Oldsmar’s water supply last week Friday.

According to Gualtieri, someone attempted a cybersecurity attack on the city of Oldsmar’s water supply by remotely accessing a computer for the city’s water treatment system and momentarily increasing the amount of sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, by over 100 times the normal level. 

The compound is traditionally found in trace amounts of the water for acidity balancing purposes but is also a corrosive chemical that can be found in cleaning supplies such as everyday liquid drain cleaners.

“At no time was there a significant adverse effect on the water being treated,” said Gualtieri. “Importantly, the public was never in danger.”

A supervisor working remotely saw the change on his computer screen and was able to instantly reverse the sodium hydroxide levels back to normal before the water supply could get affected. In a press conference on Monday, city officials announced that they disabled the remote-access component in the system to avoid future cybersecurity breaches and reassured that there are other safeguards in place to avert any pollutants from entering the supply if a similar event occurs. The Oldsmar water treatment plant was set up to allow authorized users to access the system for troubleshooting purposes.

The city of Oldsmar directly supplies its estimated 15,000 residents and businesses in the area, unlike other cities that receive their supply from Pinellas County.

Friday, the day of the breach, a plant operator was monitoring the system around 8 a.m.when he realized someone had briefly accessed the system. The operator did not find the activity to be unusual because his supervisor would remotely access the system on a regular basis.

It wasn’t until 1:30 p.m. later in the day that the operator noticed someone had taken control of the computer’s mouse and began to manipulate the water system’s controls by increasing the lye levels from 100 parts per million to 11,100 parts per million.

After the hacker made the change, they abandoned the system, and the plant operator was able to change the levels back to normal immediately. While the changes the hacker made would’ve taken longer than a day to take effect, the watchful eye of the plant operator saved thousands of residents from the harmful chemical.

“The protocols that we have in place, monitoring protocols, they work, that’s the good news,” said Oldsmar Mayor Eric Seidel. “Even had they not caught them, there’s redundancies in the system that would have caught the change in the pH level.”

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, contact with excess levels of lye can cause hair loss and significant skin damage. If ingested, it can be deadly.

“I’m not a chemist,” the sheriff said. “But I can tell you what I do know is … if you put that amount of that substance into the drinking water, it’s not a good thing.”

So far, no arrests have been made, but the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is working in conjunction with the FBI and Secret Service to narrow down the search. It is unknown why Oldsmar was targeted in specific; however, officials have notified other cities in the area to maintain a watchful eye for similar attacks.

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