Pierce County detectives investigate motive behind vandalism of utility substations

Detectives are looking for the person or persons who knocked out four utility substations in Pierce County, even setting one of them on fire. More than 14,000 customers lost power on Christmas Day. Electricity was restored for customers Sunday and Monday.

The damages come as the federal government monitors potential domestic threats and attacks against the power grid across the United States. Investigators with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office said all four substation incidents appeared to be connected. However, they continue working to determine a motive behind the damages, or if it was a coordinated attack on the power systems.

Increasing protection at utility substations may soon be a new practice for power companies across Washington and the U.S.

"There needs to be an awareness that this is now a target," Randall Blazak, an extremism expert & sociology professor in Oregon.

Tacoma Public Utilities owns two of the four substations vandalized. The company tweeted that the substations were "attacked" and "deliberately targeted."

"The security around infrastructure is going to have to change," said Blazak.

4 Pierce County power substations 'attacked,' leaving thousands without power on Christmas

The Pierce County Sheriff's Department (PCSD) is investigating burglaries to Tacoma Public Utilities (TPU) power stations that caused power outages for thousands of customers throughout the day on Sunday.

Blazak said he studies online chats in extremist groups and movements as part of his research. He said the trending rhetoric is targeting infrastructure.

"You get a bigger bang for your buck. They’re relatively accessible, they’re not highly surveyed and there aren’t armed guards around most of these substations, but you can create a lot of chaos," said Blazak.

The U.S Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis has been monitoring the potential threats and attacks. In January 2022, federal officials indicated extremist groups in the U.S. appeared to be increasing interest in targeting the power grid as a way of disrupting the nation.

In November, DHS published a bulletin that warned of a "heightened threat environment" from those following "violent extremist ideologies." It further stated the domestic groups could potentially act on violent threats during big upcoming events like "the holiday season" against U.S. targets including "critical infrastructure."

"That puts the onus on law enforcement and utilities and people who have to monitor this; kind of raise the security level because there are now these soft targets that are in the sights of the extremists," said Blazak.

Tacoma Public Utilities said federal law enforcement warned the company earlier in December about a security alert for the electrical grid. In a statement, TPU said, "Tacoma Power follows federal reliability standards, including assessing physical risks to our critical energy infrastructure and applying recommended mitigation measures"

Puget Sound Energy owns the other two substations vandalized. Company officials said they have, "extensive measures to monitor, protect and minimize the risk to our equipment and infrastructure." 

Sgt. Darren Moss, public information officer for the sheriff’s office, said surveillance cameras recorded the vandalism. However, details of what is on the video can’t be released during the ongoing investigation. Detectives are still searching for a suspect(s).