Residents phone in tips about water threat; police say no new leads

10/21/2013 11:20 AM

08/06/2014 8:49 AM

Local and federal law enforcement officials still aren’t sure whether a threat last week to contaminate Wichita’s water system is real. But they’re proceeding as though it is.

Wichita residents were on the watch over the weekend, phoning in tips to police about suspicious activity around the city’s water system, police spokesman Doug Nolte said.

Those tips produced no new leads and there were no new developments over the weekend in what’s being described as a threat against Wichita’s water system, police and federal investigators said Monday.

Officials say they continue to take the threat seriously, although its legitimacy has not yet been substantiated, Nolte said.

“We ask that people not panic,” he said. “We don’t believe this is a substantiated threat. The information we have is very vague, but we want people out there to be our eyes and ears.”

Specifically, residents should look for unusual activity or people around the city’s water system – including fire hydrants and the city’s water treatment facilities – and call 911 if they see anything.

The city’s security precautions around the water system remain in effect.

“The difficult thing you face is that the system is so broad,” Nolte said. “That’s why it’s important for people who know the areas, know where the water system is, to keep their eyes open.”

The threat came in midweek last week, along with similar threats to three other cities in the area, said Bridget Patton, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Kansas City office. Investigators will not provide details about the nature of the threat or name the other cities.

The city was advised about the threat late Thursday morning by the FBI. It became public Friday morning after The Eagle obtained two internal city e-mails about it.

In the first e-mail, sent just before 10 a.m. Friday to city employees, city water distribution manager Elizabeth Owens wrote, “A specific threat has been made that mentions four cities, one of which is Wichita, related to the water distribution systems. Please tell your employees to be extra vigilant over the next 30 days about anything they see hooked up to a fire hydrant. If it does not look right, they should call 911, then let you or me know.”

Billie Vines, another city water manager, followed Owens’ e-mail with an e-mail to the broader plumbing community, advising them to call police or the city if they saw “someone messing with a fire hydrant or vent pipe who is not a Public Works or Fire Dept. employee and does not have the hot pink ‘2013 bulkwater’ permit sticker on the back of their water tank.” In the email, Vines also asked for a photo, tag number and company name.

Patton said FBI officials received the threat, but couldn’t put a date on when it came in. She said the agency immediately involved local law enforcement and water officials, and FBI agents visited in person with Wichita water officials.

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