2013 Sniper Attack on Electric Substation Went Unknown to Public

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The Wall Street Journal broke a story this week about a largely unknown sniper attack from last year on a California electric substation. Apparently on April 16, 2013, a group of snipers launched an attack on the Metcalf substation in San Jose, knocking 17 giant transformers offline that service Silicon Valley. To avoid a blackout, other power plants in Silicon Valley made up for the shortfall, but repairs took almost a month to complete.

Details of the event were kept quiet in order to reveal information that could help copycats. However, Jon Wellinghoff, former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is going public about the event because to date there have been no arrests. He calls the episode "the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred." He fears the attackers may be planning a larger attack.

Wellinghoff also believes that it wouldn't take much to inflict serious damage on the nation's electricity grid. He says that a large-scale blackout could result from only a remarkably few number of substations going offline.

What makes the Metcalf case more troubling is the sophisticated nature in which the attack unfolded. The Wall Street Journal put together a detailed timeline of the event. The attackers cut off fiber-optic cables ahead of time. A metal vault cover was lifted, which would require multiple people. Surveillance cameras at the substation were blinded by a streak of light. The shots, from AK-47s, hit oil-filled cooling systems, but in such a way as to avoid an explosion but still make them leak oil. Piles of rocks were found in certain areas that police believe were left by a scout ahead of time to designate points of attack. When police officers arrived, the attackers were gone. Military experts believe the job was "professional."

Many utilities have since updated their security protocols, but Wellinghoff thinks that the grid remains vulnerable to attack. The FBI is "continuing to sift through evidence," but no arrests have been made.

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