Few answers in Moore County more than a week after substation attacks
Ten days after two electrical substations in central North Carolina were knocked out by gunfire, there are still more questions than answers about the incident. The outage left about 45,000 customers without power, some for as long as five days. WFAE reporter David Boraks has been following developments and joined WFAE "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn to discuss the latest.
You can listen to their whole conversation above or read the transcript below.
BORAKS: Hey Gwen.
GLENN: These attacks happened on Saturday, December 3rd in Moore County, which is about 100 miles east of Charlotte. Remind us what happened that night.
BORAKS: This all started just after 7 o'clock when someone, maybe it was more than one person, opened fire at the Duke Energy substation in Carthage. People began losing power immediately. Duke Energy's control center got an alert around that time. Then around 9:17 pm, someone shot up a second substation called West End.
And we learned yesterday (Monday) that in the middle of all of this, as operators were trying to assess the damage, Duke Energy system operators shut down a third substation. They say they needed to prevent further damage. The attacks knocked out power for customers of Duke Energy and local electric cooperatives. Some didn't get power back until Wednesday night.
GLENN: Now, the FBI, State Bureau of Investigation and Moore County Sheriff's Office are all investigating. Do they have any suspects?
BORAKS: As far as we can tell, they don't. The FBI put out a wanted poster last week saying only that it was looking for an unknown suspect or suspects. And in press conferences last week, Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields repeatedly appealed for tips. We do know that the authorities have applied for federal and local search warrants, though it's not exactly clear where or what would be searched.
An FBI spokeswoman told me the search warrants include a request for mobile phone data but she wouldn't say if they've been issued or what the FBI is looking for. It could be that they're trying to identify anyone near the sites at the time of the incident.
GLENN: What are the thoughts in terms of why would somebody do this? Do the authorities have any theories?
BORAKS: None of the federal, state or local officials have offered any theories, at least not publicly. But there are plenty going around the rumor mill. We know that the sheriff interviewed a local conservative activist after she posted on social media Saturday night that she knew who did it. She said it was "God's work" and suggested it was aimed at a drag show in Southern Pines that night. There are rumors that it was a right-wing extremist group. But authorities haven't named any suspects and nobody has taken credit for the attacks. It's just a lot of speculation right now.
GLENN: So the sheriff has said whoever did this knew what they were doing. What do you glean from that statement?
BORAKS: Well it may be a clue here. Duke Energy said this week that's one of the questions investigators are trying to answer. And these shootings are reminiscent of others around the country in recent years where organized groups have damaged or tried to damage power equipment.
Probably the best known incident was in California in 2013, where people with guns fired repeatedly into a substation near San Jose. Just like this one, they targeted parts of the equipment that would do the most damage. But that wasn't the only attack like this . We looked at utility company reports and found others all around the country. Sometimes they're under the radar - like one in Durham in March, where the power didn't go out.
It's happening all over the country. Last week, the Seattle Times reported that six substations in the Pacific Northwest were attacked back in November. It's hard to get details about these. They're reported as deliberate physical attacks. Sometimes it's just vandalism.
I talked to Michael Mabee, a researcher who collects Department of Energy data. He says there have been 919 physical attacks on the U.S. electric grid since January 2010, and more than 100 so far this year. He calls grid security America's "Achilles' heel" and says U.S. laws and regulations fall short. And now some in Congress and the statehouse are calling for hearings.
GLENN: These are very serious crimes. What's the penalty for doing this?
BORAKS: Yes, these are serious. Attacking power plants or the energy grid is a federal crime. Whoever did this could get up to 20 years in prison if they're convicted. And if anyone dies because of an attack, it could be life in prison. But still, dozens of times a year, people vandalize or shoot at power facilities across the country.
GLENN: David, thanks for that update
BORAKS: You're welcome, Gwen.
GLENN: That's WFAE's David Boraks with an update on the investigation into this month's attacks on electrical substations in Moore County.
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