RALEIGH — Increased punishments for intentionally damaging utility equipment received final legislative approval Thursday in North Carolina after attacks on the state’s electrical grid caused a dayslong blackout last December.
The bill passed unanimously in both the House and Senate in a rare display of bipartisanship. It comes as a direct response to substation shootings in Moore County that cut power to about 45,000 homes and small businesses for nearly a week. After the Senate approved the measure in a concurrence vote, the bill was sent Thursday to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who has not indicated whether he will sign it.
Republican Rep. Neal Jackson described “an eerie feeling all over” his county as residents navigated intersections without traffic lights and gathered by fire pits to stay warm after dark.
“This would send a message to North Carolina, it would send a message really to the country: You can’t do this and get by with it,” Jackson said Wednesday on the House floor. His county is located about 60 miles (95 kilometers) southwest of the state capital of Raleigh.
The measure would make it a high-grade felony to purposefully damage or attempt to damage an energy facility, including those that transmit or distribute electricity or fuel, and any associated hardware, software or digital infrastructure.
It would partially replace an existing state law that makes utility damage a misdemeanor without jail time on a first offense. Someone with no criminal history could serve just over six years in prison and face up to $250,000 in fines, according to a summary generated by the General Assembly’s nonpartisan staff. Beginning Dec. 1, the punishments would apply to damaged power lines, wires, pipes or other operating equipment used by the facility.
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A person who is injured or whose property is damaged by a utility attack would also have grounds to sue for monetary damages.
Bill sponsors have pointed out that the Moore County shootings were not an isolated incident. In recent years, the Carolinas and the Pacific Northwest have become hotspots for attacks on critical infrastructure. Several lawmakers argued a shooting earlier this year at another substation in Randolph County demonstrated an immediate need to create new deterrents and better secure the state’s electrical infrastructure.
Republican Sen. Paul Newton of Cabarrus County, one of the primary sponsors, criticized the House Thursday for not acting faster on the bill, saying it “sat there and rested comfortably for the last three months.”
Although she voted for the measure in the House on Wednesday, Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison of Guilford County encouraged lawmakers to consider supplementing it with other bills requiring the state to increase security around electrical substations, and to more thoroughly study present and future threats.
“Increasing penalties doesn’t necessarily act as a deterrent,” she said. “We often go that route, but I hope that we will consider more thoughtful solutions.”
The FBI is still seeking information related to the substation shootings in Moore County, for which there have been no arrests.
U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, a Republican representing south-central North Carolina, is scheduled to bring other members of Congress to Moore County on Friday for a discussion about enhancing the nation’s grid security in response to the substation attacks.
Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
VIDEO: Duke Energy steps up security after Moore County power grid attack
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