Tuesday, August 27, 2013

TOPSTORY >> Power lines hit often across U.S.

Leader editor

“More than a decade into the new millennium, it’s still Sept. 10, 2001, in America.”

— David Omick

Whoever sabotaged the extra-high voltage transmission lines last week in Holland Bottoms in Cabot knew what he was doing.

Not only did the vandalism hit close to home, but here’s something else that might scare you: Such attacks occur in the U.S. almost every week.

David Omick runs a website called Operation Circuit Breaker and is an expert on the vulnerability of power lines. He told us Tuesday, “First, what is surprising about attacks like this is that they’re not more common. The electrical distribution system that we all rely on for dependable power is outdated and inherently vulnerable.

“In this attack, the saboteur obviously had knowledge of how to work around electricity,” Omick continued. “It’s difficult to ascertain what his intention was, however, since he could have targeted more vulnerable components with less risk to himself. If he had, this attack could have been significantly more disruptive.”

He thinks power lines need better protection. He fears a terrorist attack could knock out power in entire cities and states.

According to his website, a small group with “minimal skills, technical expertise or financial assets” could easily exploit these unsecured power lines, resulting in a huge number of casualties and causing economic devastation.

“A society,” Omick warns, “that fails to identify and correct such vulnerabilities before they become targets, does so at its peril.”

The public is often kept in the dark (no pun intended) about these attacks because utilities don’t want the publicity — although Entergy did notify law enforcement and the media right after the Cabot tower was snapped.

The FBI has offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

What worries power companies and law enforcement is how easy it is to bring down a transmission tower along with the power lines. You can get instructions on the Internet.

Fortunately, no one was hurt and the electricity stayed on in Cabot, but the saboteur probably didn’t even have to check the Internet: He must have worn the right protective clothing to keep from getting electrocuted, or at least that’s what one expert told us.

The culprit, who may have brought a ladder with him, climbed up the 100-foot tower and cut a steel shackle that holds one set of power lines to the tower arm, causing the wires to drop. He then attached a cable to the electrical tower and ran the cable across the Union Pacific railroad tracks, hoping a moving train would bring down the tower, which runs from Holland Bottoms to Keo.

A train snagged the cable and caused the upper portion of the electrical tower to bend. Entergy’s safety features rerouted the electricity. There were no injuries or outages.

“Bringing down a high-voltage power line wouldn’t be difficult for someone who knows how,” a utility contractor who works on electrical lines told The Leader last week.

“With the right gloves and a special suit, the energy goes around you. But without the right equipment and the knowledge, you’re dead, fried internally,” he said.

According to a recent congressional report, “The transmission network is the part of the power system of greatest concern because it is highly vulnerable to attack, and the consequences can be great. The lines themselves are essentially impossible to protect because they extend many thousands of miles, often in sparsely populated areas.”

A previous congressional report titled “Physical Vulnerability of Electric Systems to Natural Disasters and Sabotage,” cites several attacks: an average of 39 a year, from Kentucky to Montana, from West Virginia to Wyoming. Many of the attacks are a result of labor disputes or youngsters playing pranks.

Somebody out there is plotting another attack like the one in Cabot last week. Let’s hope he’s caught before he disrupts a whole community.

Someone needs to invite David Omick to a congressional hearing on the vulnerability of power lines. Sen. Mark Pryor, Rep. Tim Griffin, Rep. Rick Crawford — are you listening?