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Was It a Coincidence That Another Rural NC Electrical Substation—This One Near Marine Corps Bases—Was Vandalized in November?

In the late hours of Wednesday night, power had been restored to more than 40,000 residents in Moore County, North Carolina, who had been without power since Saturday evening. There is no information on possible motives or suspects at the moment, but the FBI released wanted posters and Governor Roy Cooper announced a $75,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the persons responsible for the grid attacks on Saturday.

The incident highlights a serious weakness in the country's electricity grid, with thousands of substations across the nation, many of them located in rural areas with various levels of security. There have been incidents of attacks on substations over the years, including the 2013 event in Northern California in which gunmen destroyed 17 transformers and caused the loss of $15 million. The perpetrators were never arrested.

Attacks on substations across the country have been increasing recently, leading federal law-enforcement officials to issue a cautionary note that was obtained by News Nation. It states, in part: “Power companies in Oregon and Washington have reported physical attacks on substations using hand tools, arson, firearms and metal chains possibly in response to an online call for attacks on critical infrastructure.… In recent attacks, criminal actors bypassed security by cutting the fence links, lighting nearby fires, shooting equipment from a distance or throwing objects over the fence and onto equipment.“

Additionally, in mid-November, an electrical substation in Jones County, NC, which is a coastal rural county close to New Bern, was sabotaged, leaving 11,000 customers without power for a period of about two hours. The time frame for restoration was significantly shorter because the Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative was in a position to redirect services around the substation.

There are, however, certain similarities between the events in Moore County and Jones County. The utility’s announcement regarding the Jones County incident stated that: “The vandals damaged transformers and caused them to leak coolant oil. Crews worked quickly to stop the flow of coolant and contain it within the property.”

In Moore County, a significant amount of oil also spilled from equipment, at least at one of the substations. The Southern Pines newspaper The Pilot posted on its website Saturday night: “A reporter on scene at the Duke Energy substation off N.C. 211 near West Pine Middle School could hear and smell oil leaking from the facility.”

An archived version of the same report includes an image of police officers and Duke Energy employees at the substation. The caption reads, “Police and Duke Energy workers survey damage to the West End substation Saturday night around midnight. Large power units were leaking significant quantities of oil.”

The attacks also occurred in locations near major military facilities. The Jones County substation that was targeted is located in Maysville, about 30 miles from Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, which is the largest military base on the East Coast, and about the same distance away from two other bases, Marine Corps Air Station New River and MCAS Cherry Point (as the crow flies, at least). And regarding the Moore County attack, the county is situated near Fort Bragg, a major Army base that is home to the US Army Special Operations Command.

Jones County authorities have not divulged the way in which the Maysville substation was damaged but have described the incident in terms of “criminal vandalism.”According to the North State Journal, electric-grid security is expected to be a major issue during the North Carolina General Assembly's next session. It is likely to be a top topic for the incoming Congress as well.

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