Attack on Calif. Electric Grid Labeled Terrorism

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by Rob Quinn

 

A Pacific Gas & Electric substation in San Jose, Calif., where power was cut in April when someone sprayed more than 100 rifle bullets and knocked out 17 of the station’s transformers. Jim Wilson/The New York Times
A Pacific Gas & Electric substation in San Jose, Calif., where power was cut in April when someone sprayed more than 100 rifle bullets and knocked out 17 of the station’s transformers. Jim Wilson/The New York Times

SOUTH SAN JOSE – A little-reported attack on a power substation in California last year wasn’t vandalism, but the “most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred” in the US, according former top power regulator Jon Wellinghoff.

A mysterious and sophisticated sniper attack last year on a Silicon Valley power substation has underscored concerns about the vulnerability of the country’s electrical grid and prompted debate over whether it was an act of terrorism.

The chain of events is not in dispute: Shortly before 1:30 a.m. on April 16, 2013, one or more people methodically cut communication cables near a Pacific Gas & Electric substation in San Jose, sprayed more than 100 rifle bullets and knocked out 17 of the station’s 23 transformers before fleeing and avoiding capture. A grainy black-and-white surveillance video released by the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s office in a search for leads shows shots being fired for about a minute at the substation.

Though the utility was able to prevent a power failure by diverting electricity from other areas, the damage took 27 days to repair, said Brian Swanson, a spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric.

Wellinghoff, who was chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the time, warns that the attack was well-planned and carried out by people who knew what they were doing—and similar attacks on the nation’s poorly protected power infrastructure could cause huge blackouts across the country, reports the Wall Street Journal.

 

Grid operators had to scramble to avoid a blackout after the San Jose attack, which Wellinghoff suspects was a trial run.

 

The FBI, however, says it doesn’t believe the attack was terrorism—though it hasn’t been ruled out as a motive.