A water treatment plant in Florida was taken over temporarily by a hacker who tried to poison the town’s water supply, according to the local sheriff. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a news conference that an “awful intrusion” into the computer system at Oldsmar’s water treatment plant took place Friday afternoon.
The unknown suspect used the computer system, which had remote access capabilities to manipulate the chemicals and other operations at the water treatment plant. He then increased the amount of sodium hydroxide from 100 parts per million to 11,100 parts per million, said Gualtieri.
Sodium hydroxide, aka lye, is the main chemical found in liquid drain cleaners and is used to treat the acidity levels in the water supply and remove metals from drinking water. However, in high concentrations, it can cause irritation, burns and other complications.
Fortunately, the plant manager who was present at the time noticed the three to five-minute hack and quickly took action quickly to prevent serious damage to the water, Gualtieri said.
“The intruder exited the system, and the plant operator immediately reduced the level back to the appropriate amount of 100,” he said at the news conference. “Because the operator noted the increase and lowered it right away, at no time was there a significant adverse effect on the water being treated.”
The city, which is around 15 miles northwest of Tampa – which played host to the Super Bowl on Sunday night – and its 15,000 residents were not put at risk, officials added.
The sheriff said “the public was never in danger,” because it would have taken 24 to 36 hours for the tainted water to hit the system if the plant manager didn’t act.
The remote access system has since been disabled, with officials saying there were other safeguards in place to prevent the increased chemical levels from getting into the water.
In a statement sent to Sky News, the city’s Mayor Eric Seidel said: “The City of Oldsmar has robust protocols in place that were used to stop a cyber intrusion into the water system’s software.
“The protocols include security measures and multiple redundancies in the distribution of potable water to ensure its safety to our customers,” the Mayor added.
Nearby city leaders were told of the incident and advised to check their systems.
For now, the police don’t have any suspects, and the investigation is ongoing. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that he contacted the FBI to assist with the investigation. “This should be treated as a matter of national security,” he tweeted.