Push to stiffen penalties for damaging utilities advances in Arizona Senate
In the wake of attacks on substations across the nation, a bill at the Arizona legislature would create a new classification for the criminal activity and make those who interfere with a utility liable for the cost of loss of power.
The measure, House Bill 2212, allows people who interfere with or prevent the function of utility infrastructure to be charged with aggravated criminal damage.
The proposal initially sought to increase the punishments for trespassing on a critical public service facility and damaging or intentionally tampering with utility property, but Republican sponsor Rep. Gail Griffin removed those provisions because of concerns from fellow legislators.
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.
Griffin mentioned the recent spate of attacks on substations in Washington and North Carolina that have left many without power and caused millions of dollars in damages. She has previously mentioned that the bill was created in part with the help of local utility companies, and it is about taking a “proactive stance” about the national issue, but Thursday said that the state has already seen its fair share of issues.
“We originally talked about being proactive, but it is time we start acting,” Griffin said before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday. Griffin said that infrastructure for the Central Arizona Irrigation and Drainage District has recently seen increased vandalism resulting in thousands of dollars in expenses to the small local utility.
Other rural utilities are seeing similar issues, as well. Roosevelt Water Conservation District General Manager Shane Leonard told the committee that it has seen a rise in vandalism and people stealing wires and “deconstructing” sites.
Leonard said that, in the past few months, they’ve had three instances that exceeded more than $100,000 in damages.
“That money has to come from somewhere,” Leonard said, adding that it usually comes from either land tax or water sales. “I know how we all feel about taxes moving forward.”
The committee mainly focused on vandalism and theft of copper wires, which Leonard said was something he urged lawmakers to continue to pursue as utilities “can’t keep up with it.” He noted that many scrap dealers are already barred by Arizona law from accepting the metals that are taken from utilities, but some still are.
More deliberate 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.”
Last month, a Neo-Nazi was caught in a plot to commit a plot to attack a substation in Baltimore and the man at the center of the plot discussed the North Carolina attack with a confidential informant prior to his arrest.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.