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Underreported Attack on California Power Station Exposes Physical World Grid Vulnerability

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A day after the Boston Marathon bombings, a military-style attack was levied on a California power station.  Largely unmentioned and as yet unsolved, the story got buried by the Tsarnaev brothers’ terrorist tragedy and ensuing manhunt. But California Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman, the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, recently referenced this incident as an example of the dangers posed to our decaying infrastructure.  President Obama has placed an emphasis on cyber security to protect our power grid, but the events of April 16th, 2013 show that it is still vulnerable to a traditional attack as well. retells the tale:

Around 1:00 AM on April 16, at least one individual (possibly two) entered two different manholes at the PG&E Metcalf power substation, southeast of San Jose, and cut fiber cables in the area around the substation. That knocked out some local 911 services, landline service to the substation, and cell phone service in the area, a senior U.S. intelligence official told Foreign Policy. The intruder(s) then fired more than 100 rounds from what two officials described as a high-powered rifle at several transformers in the facility. Ten transformers were damaged in one area of the facility, and three transformer banks — or groups of transformers — were hit in another, according to a PG&E spokesman.

Cooling oil then leaked from a transformer bank, causing the transformers to overheat and shut down. State regulators urged customers in the area to conserve energy over the following days, but there was no long-term damage reported at the facility and there were no major power outages. There were no injuries reported. That was the good news. The bad news is that officials don’t know who the shooter(s) were, and most importantly, whether further attacks are planned.

“Initially, the attack was being treated as vandalism and handled by local law enforcement,” the senior intelligence official said. “However, investigators have been quoted in the press expressing opinions that there are indications that the timing of the attacks and target selection indicate a higher level of planning and sophistication.”

AT&T has offered a $250,000 reward for information and the FBI is handling the case and.  But some believe the event may have been a “dry run” for a larger scale attack on the nation’s power grid.  Among the believers in this theory is Mark Johnson, a former vice president for transmission operations at PG&E. “These were not amateurs taking potshots,” he said.  “My personal view is that this was a dress rehearsal.”

Jon Wellinghoff, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, says the cost of improving physical security is a fraction of what it takes to improve cyber security and that we must take these steps :

A shooter “could get 200 yards away with a .22 rifle and take the whole thing out,” Wellinghoff said last month at a conference sponsored by Bloomberg. His proposed defense: A metal sheet that would block the transformer from view. “If you can’t see through the fence, you can’t figure out where to shoot anymore,” Wellinghoff said. Price tag? A “couple hundred bucks.”


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