Jump to main content or area navigation.

Contact Us

Water: Decontamination


What is Decontamination and how does it relate to the water sector?

Decontamination is the inactivation or reduction of contaminants by physical, chemical or other methods to meet a cleanup goal.  Decontamination is a key component of the remediation phase in a contamination incident. During a water incident, once contamination and characterization are confirmed, decontamination is performed before returning a system to service.

This figure depicts the flow of activities between response, remediation, and recovery processes. Each box represents a major step within the process and shows that decontamination falls under remediation.

This figure depicts the flow of activities between response, remediation, and recovery processes. Each box represents a major step within the process and shows that decontamination falls under remediation.

Filling a glass with drinking water from a faucet.

Drinking water and wastewater systems can face major challenges when confronting a confirmed contamination incident—whether accidental or intentional, natural or man-made. The challenges include not only isolating and treating contaminated water, but also decontaminating the storage, treatment and distribution infrastructure during recovery and return to service.

Water Security Division's mission for decontamination efforts to the water sector

Under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 10 (HSPD 10), Biodefense for the 21st Century, EPA, in coordination with other federal departments and agencies, is charged with developing strategies, guidelines, and plans for decontamination.

In response to these mandates, EPA is:

  • Promoting shared understanding of relative decontamination roles, responsibilities, assets and capabilities
  • Ensuring access to best available science, technical and policy information regarding decontamination
  • Increasing access to appropriately trained personnel and equipment related to decontamination
  • Building a laboratory network to analyze surges of environmental samples.

EPA's Water Sector Security Mission is to provide national leadership in developing and promoting security programs that enhance the sector's ability to prevent, detect, respond to and recover from all hazards.

Water Sector Decontamination Priorities

Cover of the Recommendations and Proposed Strategic Plan: Water Sector Decontamination Priorities, Final Report, October 2008.In 2006–2007, the Critical Infrastructure Partnership Advisory Council (CIPAC) Decontamination Working Group, convened by the Water Sector Coordinating Council (WSCC) and the Government Coordinating Council (GCC), was established to develop recommendations and a strategic plan to support decontamination priorities for the water sector.

The CIPAC Working Group's Water Sector Decontamination Priorities Strategic Plan Final Report (98 pp, 751K, About PDF) Exit EPA Disclaimer published in 2008, highlights a strategy for addressing gaps in decontamination efforts. The overarching strategy provides information, tools, and resources to enable the timely recovery and return to service of utility operations from all-hazards contamination incidents. It addresses a range of contamination scenarios related to the type of system (e.g., drinking water, wastewater), type of contaminant (e.g., chemical, biological, radiological (CBR)), type of media (e.g., water infrastructure and equipment used to store and treat; distribution and collection systems; household plumbing; and environmental), type of incident (e.g., natural or man-made, accidental or intentional) and extent of contamination (e.g., concentrations, spatial and temporal variations).

Other EPA Program Offices Relation to Water Sector Decontamination

Diagram showing the Roles and Responsibilities for Water Sector Decontamination for the US EPA Regions, Office of Homeland Security, Water Sector Coordinating Council, Office of Water, Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, and the Office of Research and Development.

There are many EPA program offices involved in addressing decontamination challenges facing the Water Sector. These offices work as partners, each with individual and some shared responsibilities as shown in the diagram above. For example: The Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER), Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is the overall EPA HQ lead for decontamination. In the case of a decontamination related emergency incident, they work with the EPA Region where the incident occurred. If there is a response capability gap, the Office of Research and Development (ORD), National Homeland Security Research Center (NHSRC) may be involved with research on contaminants, decontamination method and laboratory analysis, and will work with the Office of Water (OW), Water Security Division (WSD) for decontamination issues related to the water sector. For issues related to wastewater, WSD will collaborate with the Office of Wastewater Management (OWM) as needed. The Water Sector may also assist in a response by providing information and resources.

The following are additional EPA Offices and Decontamination Partners: The Office of Homeland Security (OHS), The EPA Regions, The Water Sector Coordinating Council (WSCC) and The Water Government Coordinating Council (WGCC).

  • Responsible for overall water sector decontamination efforts
  • Oversees the water sector decontamination strategy implementation
  • Develop and issue water sector policy, guidance and frameworks


  • Supports WSD's overall water sector decontamination efforts
  • Supports ORD and private sector research and development of technologies, processes and management approaches to mitigate, control, treat and dispose of wastewater contaminants
  • Provides technical assistance to local wastewater utilities on the mitigation, control, treatment and disposal of contaminated wastewater
  • Oversees the implementation of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program
  • Oversees National Pretreatment Program to ensure that the nation's publicly owned treatment works (POTW) infrastructure is sustained and maintained
  • Provides regulatory guidance and technical assistance to prevent the exiting of pollutants untreated through the nation's POTWs to waters of the U.S.
  • Provides guidance to POTW's to assess treatment capability, vulnerability and capacity.


  • Overall Agency decontamination lead
  • Leads non-water infrastructure decontamination preparedness and response
  • Under OEM, the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Consequence Management Advisory Team (CMAT) provides scientific and technical expertise for all phases of CBRN consequence management including the decontamination of buildings, public infrastructure, transportation infrastructure and outdoor spaces


  • Responsible for overall water sector decontamination research
  • Develops decontamination technologies and methodologies

NHSRC provides water utilities with tools needed to improve water security and to recover from an attack or contamination incident involving (CBR) agents or weapons. In addition to their work on infrastructure protection, contamination detection, containment and mitigation and risk assessment, treatment and decontamination is also a part of their activities. For treatment and decontamination, information is available in the areas of:

Get Quicktime PlayerSome features of this site require the latest version of Apple QuickTime. Download a free copy of Apple QuickTime. Exit Disclaimer

In the event of a contamination incident, utilities can be challenged with response, remediation and recovery activities. These activities include isolating and treating contaminated water as well as providing storage for treated water and decontaminated infrastructure during recovery and return to service.  Responding to a contamination event can take many avenues based on the contaminant, incident and site characterization and decontamination methods considered. Guidance provides a much needed means to knowing how to recover effectively and efficiently from an incident.

Large metal pipe emptying water into a grassland area.

WSD developed the Containment and Disposal of Large Amounts of Contaminated Water: A Support Guide for Water Utilities (PDF) (96 pp, 7MB, About PDF). It contains information on containment, treatment, disposal, storage and transportation of contaminated water. In addition, it contains useful decision making flowcharts that can be used in the field during a response. The guide addresses nearly 70 contaminants of concern to the water sector.

Containment and Disposal of Large Amounts of Contaminated Water: A Support Guide for Water Utilities Webcast (MP4) (16:14 mins, 24MB)
Key decision points when responding to a contamination event involving large amounts of water are demonstrated in this engaging webcast.

WSD also developed the Water Security Initiative: Interim Guidance on Developing Consequence Management Plans for Drinking Water Utilities (PDF) (101 pp, 2MB, About PDF). The purpose of this document is to assist drinking water utilities with planning, designing, implementing and maintaining an effective Consequence Management Plan (CMP) as part of a contamination warning system. This is based on the model developed under EPA's Water Security initiative.

Additional Resources

The resources listed below provide useful information for decontamination response activities.

During a contamination incident, it will be necessary to analyze a surge of water samples to identify the contaminant and to support remediation. Remediation includes characterization of the extent of con­tamination, assessing the effectiveness of decontamination and determining that it is safe to return the system to service. Long-term monitoring of the water system to confirm no reoccurrence will require further analysis of water samples. A variety of factors may impact analytical needs in any given incident, including contaminant type and response phase. Locating laboratory resources with the capability and capacity to analyze water samples for chemical, biological and radiological contami­nants during incident response is crucial to responding appropriately and is a key step in any decontamination process.

Laboratory technician is testing a sample.

EPA Resources

The EPA provides multiple resources to assist water utilities in gaining access to the appropriate laboratory services in the event of a water sector contamination event.

  • Laboratory Compendium
    EPA's Compendium of Environmental Testing Laboratories is an online database that can be used to identify a laboratory with the appropriate analytical capabilities. Registration is required through application and EPA's approval.
  • Selected Analytical Methods for Environmental Remediation and Recovery (SAM)
    EPA's National Homeland Security Research Center's SAM identifies analytical methods to be used by laboratories tasked with performing analyses of environmental samples following a homeland security event.
  • Laboratory Resources Fact Sheet (4 pp, 446K, About PDF)
    This fact sheet is a quick guide for utilities summarizing how to access laboratory resources. The fact sheet provides examples on how to engage in a coordinated laboratory response to contamination events.
  • Networks
    EPA and other federal organizations support a number of laboratory networks that can be accessed to provide additional analytical response capabilities during a contamination event.
    • Environmental Response Laboratory Network (ERLN)
      This network provides decision-makers with reliable, high quality analytical data used to identify chemical, biological and radiological contaminants collected in environmental samples in support of response and cleanup activities.
    • Water Laboratory Alliance (WLA)
      WLA provides an integrated nationwide network of laboratories with the capabilities and capacity to analyze water samples involving a contamination event. The WLA Response Plan (PDF) (82 pp, 2MB, About PDF) establishes processes and procedures for a coordinated laboratory response to water contamination events.
  • Other Federal Agency Networks
    • Integrated Consortium of Laboratory Networks (ICLN) Exit EPA Disclaimer
      This consortium provides a venue for the efficient coordination of analytical laboratory services for chemical, biological and radiological events through inter-federal network strategic and operational planning, communication and coor¬dination.
    • DoD Laboratory Network (DLN) Exit EPA Disclaimer
      This network is a coordinated and operational system of DoD laboratories, programs, and activities possessing analytic or incident response capabilities that provides timely, high quality, actionable results for early detection, confirmation, response and effective consequence management of acts of terrorism or warfare involving CBRN agents, infectious disease agents and other all-hazards agents of military or national significance in support of the DoD’s global and homeland defense missions.
    • Food Emergency Response Network (FERN) Exit EPA Disclaimer
      This network integrates the nation's food-testing laboratories at the local, state and federal levels into a network that is able to respond to emergencies involving biological, chemical or radiological contamination of food.
    • Laboratory Response Network (LRN)
      This network establishes an integrated national and international network of laboratories that can respond quickly to needs for rapid testing, timely notification and secure messaging of results associated with acts of biological or chemical terrorism and other high priority public health emergencies.
    • National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN)
      This network’s purpose is to enhance the Nation’s early detection of, response to, and recovery from animal health emergencies, including bioterrorist incidents, newly emerging diseases and foreign animal disease agents that threaten the Nation’s food supply and public health.
    • National Plant Diagnostic Network (NPDN) Exit EPA Disclaimer
      This is a nationwide network of public agricultural institutions with a cohesive, distributed system to quickly detect high consequence pests and pathogens that have been introduced into agricultural and natural ecosystems, identify them and immediately report them to appropriate responders and decision makers.
    • Vet-LRN
      This network coordinate facilities, equipment, and professional expertise of government and veterinary diagnostic laboratories across the country and Canada to respond to high priority chemical and microbial feed/drug contamination events. The network provides the means for rapid response to reports of animal injury and establishes protocols to facilitate veterinary diagnostic reporting to the FDA.

Jump to main content.