Amid substation attacks, GOP bill would enhance penalties for damaging utility infrastructure

By: - January 25, 2023 1:18 pm

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In the wake of attacks on substations across the nation, a bill at the Arizona legislature would increase penalties for those who damage utility infrastructure or trespass on utility property in an attempt to create a “deterrent” for similar attacks. 

“It is becoming a problem, and we want to get everybody’s attention,” Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, told the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday about her bill, House Bill 2212

The bill makes it a class 5 felony for trespassing on a critical public service facility, raises the felony classification from a class 4 to class 3 for damaging or intentionally tampering with utility property, and creates criminal liability for aggravated criminal damage if a person interferes with the function of utility infrastructure. 

The bill also makes other changes to existing state law on damages to utilities, including making penalties harsher and adding the cost of the loss of utility service among the variables to be considered when determining the amount of damage to a property when considering the level of criminal damage. 

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Griffin mentioned the recent spate of attacks on substations in Washington, North Carolina and Florida that have left many without power and caused millions of dollars in damages. She said her bill was created in part with the help of local utility companies, and it is about taking a “proactive stance” about the national issue. 

Attacks on substations are not entirely a new phenomenon. In 2013, a California substation was attacked by a team of gunmen — a crime that remained unsolved. Far-right extremists have been discussing attacking substations increasingly since at least 2020 and, prior to the North Carolina attack, the Department of Homeland Security issued a security bulletin addressing the threat, according to reporting by CNN.  

CNN also reported that a 14-page document released in an online space favored by neo-Nazis who aspire to accelerate the downfall of the United States government included a guide on how to attack substations. The Arizona Mirror obtained a copy of this document, as well as another 200-page document with detailed instructions on how to disrupt critical infrastructure. 

That larger document specifically mentions the 2013 substation attack as inspiration within its opening paragraphs. 

“Electricity is the main satiating tool the system uses to keep the masses from rioting,” the unknown authors wrote, including detailed pictures of transformers. “By disabling electricity, a saboteur is stopping everything from life support to sex toys, the loss of either will drive the masses into panic equally.” 

Griffin said that attacks like the ones in other states have not happened in Arizona to her knowledge — vandalism and theft are the main issues facing Arizona’s power grid — but reiterated that she is attempting to take a “proactive” approach. 

Rep. Analise Ortiz, D-Phoenix, said she believed that Griffin should consult with local county attorneys, as she believed that what Griffin was attempting could more reasonably fit under Arizona’s existing domestic terrorism laws. 

“Transformers are very difficult to come by these days,” Russell Smoldon, executive director of Municipal Power Users Association told lawmakers, adding that, if power is out in some areas of the state, it means that things such as wells, water treatment or phone service may not work. 

Smoldon said he supports the bill, as he represents many of Arizona’s rural communities where an attack on a substation would more directly impact residents. He conceded that there’s no way to know if stiffer penalties will stop bad actors from damaging important electrical grid equipment, but said a deterrent is still needed.

“The message this sends is we are going to take this serious,” he said.

That mindset didn’t convince the committee’s Democrats, however.

“I want to look at what is going on in our state,” Rep. Lupe Contreras, D-Cashion, said about the bill, explaining his no vote. “I want to work on what is going on today.”

Contreras’ colleagues seemed to echo his sentiments, saying there wasn’t a defined problem and Griffin had not presented any data that increasing penalties was problematic. 

“I’m trying to gauge whether…this is something that will prevent these types of attacks or not,” Ortiz said. “I still don’t know if what is being proposed will stop this from happening.” 

Rep. Alexander Kolodin, R-Scottsdale, said he would support the bill so it could pass committee, but echoed the sentiments from his Democratic colleagues and worried that increasing penalties was not the right answer to protecting critical infrastructure. 

That view wasn’t shared by his Republican colleagues. 

“We are saying that this has not happened in Arizona. I think this bill is more proactive than reactive. I think, as a state, we need to be more proactive than reactive,” Rep. David Marshall, R-Snowflake said, adding that the elderly people in his area can’t live without power. 

“Nobody predicted 9/11 on 9/10,” committee Chairman Quang Nguyen said.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.

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