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Power Station Shooting an Act of Domestic Terrorism, Says Former Energy Chairman

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Substations like this one in San Francisco may be vulnerable to terrorist assault | Photo: neohippie/Flickr/Creative Commons License

An incident of deliberate damage to a Pacific Gas and Electric substation we reported on last April may have been more than vandalism, according to a report published Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal.

In the April 16 incident, phone lines to the Metcalf transmission substation south of San Jose were cut just before snipers shot out 17 large transformers, prompting a Flex Alert that covered much of the south San Francisco Bay Area. Though PG&E still describes the act as vandalism, it was such a methodical assault that the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission called it an act of terrorism.

Though the attack didn't result in blackouts, it took 27 days to bring the substation all the way back online. No one has been arrested in relation to the attack, and the FBI isn't treating it as a terrorist act. But former FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff fears that the Metcalf assault may have been a dry run for a larger attack in the works.

Shortly after the April assault, Wellinghoff referred to the attack on the Metcalf substation as "the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred [in the U.S.]" According to Wall Street Journal reporter Rebecca Smith, Wellinghoff later inspected the substation in the company of forensics experts from the U.S. Navy's Dahlgren Surface Warfare Center in Virginia. (Dahlgren is the facility that trains Navy SEALS.) The Navy consultants assessed the assault as a "professional job."

"They said it was a targeting package just like they would put together for an attack," Wellinghoff told Smith.

Smith and her Journal colleagues compiled a chronology of the attack from PG&E filings with California and federal regulators, police reports and interviews. The scenario Smith describes suggests a highly disciplined assault by a disciplined group of people who had planned things to the last detail, including cutting phone lines so that they couldn't be repaired easily, precise targeting of crucial cooling equipment that would cause the transformers to overheat and shut down without making them explode due to direct gunfire, and pre-planned flashlight signals to direct gunmen to commence and end the attack.

Shell casings found on the site by investigators were free of fingerprints, and small piles of rocks marking the best places to taking shots at coolant may have been placed by advance scouts.

Wellinghoff, who now works at a law firm in San Francisco, says the attack underscores the fragility of the nation's power grid -- a topic he discussed frequently during his tenure as FERC chair.

"What keeps me awake at night is a physical attack that could take down the grid," he told Smith. "This is a huge problem."

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