Authorities in Washington State are investigating a series of attacks on four power substations on Christmas Day that caused thousands of customers in the region to lose power and raised concerns once again about the nation’s power grid security.
The attack comes just weeks after assailants shot at two substations in North Carolina, causing about 45,000 customers in rural Moore County to lose power for several days. After those attacks, federal regulators ordered a review of security standards for the nation’s power grid in response to growing concerns that the power grid could be a target for extremist groups.
According to authorities in Pierce County, Wash., there are no suspects, and their investigation is in its early stages.
“At this time, deputies are conducting the initial investigation,” stated Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. “We do not have any suspects in custody. It is unknown if there are any motives or if this was a coordinated attack on the power systems.”
The sheriff’s department reports that the first attack occurred around 5:30 a.m. Sunday, when officers received a call reporting a break-in at a Tacoma Public Utilities substation about 20 miles south of downtown Tacoma.
“Nothing had been taken from the substation, but the suspect vandalized the equipment causing a power outage,” according to the sheriff’s office. Within a short period of time, the authorities were notified of a second break-in at another substation located just over 2.5 miles away.
As a result of the attack, Tacoma Power, which manages both substations, reported that more than 7,000 customers in the regions of Elk Plain and Graham were without power. “Earlier this month, we were alerted by federal law enforcement of a security alert for the electrical grid,” said a statement from the utility company. It could not provide further information regarding its security measures or the attacks.
Earlier that day, Puget Sound Energy notified the authorities that it had also experienced a power outage just before 2:40 a.m. that morning. The sheriff’s department confirmed that the third substation was also broken into and vandalized.
Just after 7:20 p.m. that evening, dispatchers were notified of a fire at a second Puget Sound Energy substation that had been caused by a vandal and had cut power to homes in the area.
According to the utility, it is in the process of coordinating with the authorities and cannot provide any further comment regarding the investigation. “P.S.E. has extensive measures to monitor, protect and minimize the risk to our equipment and infrastructure,” according to an email from the utility firm on Monday, which stated that power had been restored to all affected customers.
An official from the Sheriff’s Department did not respond to requests for further comment on Monday, but a dispatcher said the F.B.I. was now leading the investigation.
While the FBI’s Seattle office was aware of the reports, it was unable to confirm whether the agency was investigating them.
“We routinely share information with our local partners and take threats against our infrastructure seriously,” F.B.I. spokesman Steve Bernd wrote in an email on Monday evening. “We urge anyone with information to contact law enforcement.”
There is an investigation underway by the Federal Bureau of Investigation into the gunfire attacks on the Moore County, North Carolina power grid on December 3.
According to Governor Roy Cooper, whoever carried out the attack in North Carolina “knew what they were doing,” and the attack had brought attention to the importance of protecting critical infrastructure.