At least five attacks at electricity substations in Washington and Oregon, including two at Puget Sound Energy substations, have been reported to the FBI in recent weeks.
Spokespeople for Puget Sound Energy, the Cowlitz County Public Utility District and Bonneville Power Administration confirmed the attacks happened in November, according to emails sent in response to Seattle Times inquiries.
The FBI declined to confirm it is investigating the attacks, but the utilities say they are cooperating with a federal investigation.
It wasn’t immediately known whether the damage to Northwest substations resulted in any disruption of power.
News of the attacks follows a shooting investigators say damaged substations in North Carolina on Saturday, leaving thousands without power. Energy experts have stressed the need to secure the power grid, warning that the nation’s vulnerable electricity infrastructure could be a target for domestic terrorists.
BPA spokesperson Douglas Johnson said a “deliberate physical attack” at a Clackamas, Oregon, substation occurred over the Thanksgiving holiday. A fence was cut and equipment was damaged, Johnson wrote.
BPA is a key player in the Northwest power transmission system that supplies power from federal hydroelectric dams to regional utilities as well as those elsewhere in the West.
“BPA is actively cooperating with the FBI on this incident and has encouraged other utilities throughout the region to increase their vigilance and report any suspicious or similar activity to law enforcement,” Johnson wrote.
Johnson declined to give details about the equipment damaged, but said that any costs associated with repairing or replacing equipment will be passed on to ratepayers.
The FBI’s Seattle field office declined to comment on the incidents nor confirm reports that the agency has sent bulletins to local law enforcement agencies and utility companies warning of attacks, but said the agency “routinely shares information with our law enforcement partners to assist in protecting the communities they serve.”
The Puget Sound Energy attacks occurred in late November at two substations, according to Gerald Tracy, media engagement program manager for the utility company.
“We can’t comment on the incidents because they are both an on-going investigation involving the FBI,” Tracy wrote.
Tracy declined to comment on where the substations are located or the extent of the damage.
Southwest Washington’s Cowlitz County Public Utility District sustained “vandalism” on two substations in mid-November in the Woodland area. “At this time, we do not have any further comment. … Our facilities have since been repaired,” said a written statement from spokesperson Alice Dietz.
A spokesperson for the Snohomish County Public Utility District, the largest public utility district in the state, said substations in its jurisdiction have not been attacked this year, but they have been vandalized in the past.
A spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee said the governor’s office defers to utilities to describe specific threats.
“We are aware of increased threats to our utilities and are monitoring threat activity in our support and coordination role with federal and local governments and individual utilities,” executive director of communications Jaime Smith wrote.
A spokesperson for the King County Sheriff’s Office declined to confirm if the agency has received an FBI bulletin about substation attacks, but said the office has not “found anything to support that this has happened in our jurisdiction.”
With utilities releasing few details on the Northwest attacks it is difficult to assess who is responsible and their motivation, said David Neiwert, a Washington state-based senior staff writer for the Daily Kos and author of “Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump.”
“Yahoos sometimes go out and shoot things up. And power utilities are a frequent target,” Neiwert said. “How much damage did these attacks do and how knowledgeable were the attackers? That’s what we need to know to make an assessment.”
The North Carolina attack underscored the vulnerability of the nation’s power grid to attacks on substations, which are often located in rural, unpopulated areas.
Although those responsible for the attacks are unknown, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis warned in January that extremist groups in the United States appear to increasingly view attacking the power grid as a means of disrupting the country.
Domestic extremists “have developed credible, specific plans to attack electricity infrastructure since at least 2020,” according to the DHS report.
In February, three men pleaded guilty to conspiring to attack U.S. energy facilities. Authorities said they were driven by white supremacist ideologies to “sow mayhem and division among Americans.”
Experts say it would be difficult to knock out power to the nation given the size and decentralized nature of the grid, The Associated Press reported. The DHS report also notes that attackers, without inside help at least, would be unlikely to produce widespread, multistate outages, though they could still do damage and cause injuries.