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Sniper attack on Calif. power station leads to calls for more security

Widespread sniper attacks on multiple power stations could leave much of the U.S. in the dark for weeks.
Widespread sniper attacks on multiple power stations could leave much of the U.S. in the dark for weeks.
Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

A group of lawmakers are calling for additional security measures for the nation’s power grid infrastructure following a military-style attack on a California electric substation last April.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the group, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have asked industry groups about what sort of additional measures can be implemented. In addition, the senators – Feinstein and three others – have asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Reliability Corporation to examine whether the federal government can and should take additional measures to make the grid safer from physical attack.

According to the paper, the attack last April 16 began shortly after 1 a.m., when someone slipped into an underground power vault near a busy freeway and slashed telephone wires.

Within a half-hour, snipers fired on a nearby electrical substation, and continued shooting for about 20 minutes. They managed to surgically knockout 17 large transformers that send power to energy-hungry Silicon Valley. Just moments before police arrived on the scene, the snipers disappeared into the night.

“To avoid a blackout, electric-grid officials rerouted power around the site and asked power plants in Silicon Valley to produce more electricity. But it took utility workers 27 days to make repairs and bring the substation back to life,” the Journal reported.

Since the attack, authorities have not managed to identify any suspects or make any arrests.

Few Americans are even aware of the attack, but at least one former federal official has labeled it a terrorist attack that, if it were repeated on a wider scale around the country, could severely disable much of the U.S. electric grid and lead to blackouts around the country.

The attack was “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred” in the U.S., according to Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the time.

Other experts agree that the well-coordinated attack was not something that was hastily done.

“This wasn't an incident where Billy-Bob and Joe decided, after a few brewskis, to come in and shoot up a substation," said Mark Johnson, a retired vice president of transmission for PG&E, owner/operator of the substation that was attacked. In a utility security conference, according to a video of his presentation, he added: “This was an event that was well thought out, well planned and they targeted certain components.”

In their letter to regulators, the senators said there wasn’t much room for error.

“While it appears that many utilities have a firm grasp on the problem, we simply do not know if there are substantial numbers of utilities or others that may have not taken adequate measures to protect against and minimize the harm from a physical attack,” they wrote. “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

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