In early December, we reported on the recent rise in substation attacks, highlighting the vulnerabilities of the nation’s power grid. A November attack in Jones County, North Carolina, was followed in a matter of weeks by one in Moore County, North Carolina, the latter of which left over 40,000 residents without power for several days. As Managing Editor Jennifer Van Laar noted at the time:
The incident highlights a major vulnerability in the nation’s electrical grid, namely tens of thousands of substations throughout the country, many of which are in rural areas, and with varying levels of security. There have been attacks on substations in the past, most notably a 2013 attack in Northern California in which gunmen destroyed 17 transformers, causing $15 million in damage. The perpetrators were never caught.
Attacks on substations around the country have increased recently, leading federal law enforcement officers to issue a warning memo which was obtained by News Nation. It reads, in part:
Power companies in Oregon and Washington have reported physical attacks on substations using hand tools, arson, firearms and metal chains possibly in response to an online call for attacks on critical infrastructure. … In recent attacks, criminal actors bypassed security by cutting the fence links, lighting nearby fires, shooting equipment from a distance or throwing objects over the fence and onto equipment.
Now, there have been additional attacks reported in the state of Washington. Four stations in the Tacoma, Washington area were burglarized or vandalized on Sunday, knocking out power to over 14,000 homes and businesses. Setting aside the inconvenience of being without power — particularly on a major holiday — this new rash of attacks again raises the specter of our power grid’s vulnerability.
These latest attacks have been characterized by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department as “burglaries.” From the Department’s blotter:
Today at 05:26 am we received a call of a burglary to the Tacoma Public Utilities Substation at 22312 46th Ave E.
Deputies arrived on scene and saw there was forced entry into the fenced area. Nothing had been taken from the substation, but the suspect vandalized the equipment causing a power outage in the area.
Deputies were notified of a second burglary to the TPU substation at 8820 224th St E which also had forced entry with damage to the equipment. Nothing was taken from this site either.
At 11:25 we were notified by Puget Sound Energy that they too had a power outage this morning at 02:39 am. Deputies are currently on scene at this facility where the fenced area was broken into and the equipment vandalized.
The fourth incident occurred Sunday evening at another Puget Sound Energy substation. Per a subsequent blotter entry from the Sheriff’s Department:
At 7:21 pm, on December 25th, 2022, dispatchers received a call of a fire at the Puget Sound Energy substation at 14320 Kapowsin Hwy E. Deputies, Firefighters and Puget Sound Energy employees responded to the scene. The fire was extinguished and the substation secured. Power was knocked out for homes in Kapowsin and Graham. The suspect(s) gained access to the fenced area and vandalized the equipment which caused the fire. There are no suspects in custody at this time.
This is the 4th incident at a Power Substation in South Pierce County on Christmas Day. All law enforcement agencies in the county have been notified of the incidents and will be monitoring power substations in their area.
Thankfully, by Sunday evening, power had been restored to most of the affected customers. Additionally, temperatures in the Tacoma area on Sunday ranged from the upper 40s to the low 50s, above the below-freezing temperatures experienced there several days earlier, and the frigid temperatures that have affected much of the country over the past week.
While authorities have yet to identify suspects or a motive, NBC News was quick to point to “white supremacy” and “right-wing extremism” as potential culprits:
Investigators probing the North Carolina attacks were looking at online conspiracy theories to determine whether any played a role, two senior law enforcement officials briefed on the matter said this month.
A prevailing theory was that the outages were intended to shut down a drag performance, “Downtown Divas,” at Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines, North Carolina. Anti-LGBTQ demonstrators targeted the location in the days leading up to the Saturday night event, which continued in the dark before it ended early.
Power infrastructure has long been on the attack wish list of white supremacists and other right-wing extremists who seek American “destabilization,” Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said in February.
Early this year, three men pleaded guilty in connection with a plot to disrupt the electricity grid, sow civil unrest and economic uncertainty, and ultimately trigger a race war, federal prosecutors said at the time.
However, as we noted at the time of the Moore County attacks, the individual whose social media posts purportedly sparked the theory denied involvement. And, per NBC’s reporting on this “prevailing theory,” Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields stated “that authorities spoke with her and determined her social posts to be not credible, according to WRAL–TV,” later adding:
“I would ask that our citizens try to be as patient as possible. We’re working literally around the clock to solve this and until we’re able to report back to the public, I would ask that they not assume anything,”
With regard to the latest attacks, at least NBC acknowledged, “There’s no indication the Washington, Oregon and Carolinas attacks shared similar motives.”
This is a developing story and we’ll provide an update when and if the suspects and their motives are identified.