NC senators want tougher utility attack penalties

Published 12:10 am Thursday, February 2, 2023

By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press

RALEIGH — Punishments would get tougher in North Carolina for intentionally damaging utility equipment — like what authorities say happened two months ago when tens of thousands of Moore County residents lost electricity for days — in legislation filed Wednesday by Senate Republicans.

The measure would create a new crime making it a high-grade felony to intentionally destroy or damage any “energy facility” or attempt to do so. It would, in part, replace current state law that makes it a misdemeanor to vandalize equipment that interrupts the transmission of electricity.

While such a misdemeanor conviction doesn’t mandate jail on a first offense, conviction of a felony like the one envisioned in the proposal would result in prison terms of up to roughly 10 years, a senator said. For people with lengthy criminal records, those terms could be even longer. In addition, people convicted of the proposed crime would face $250,000 fines and could face lawsuits seeking financial damages by those who lost goods or incurred expenses related to resulting outages.

The measure also would make it the same level of felony to destroy or pull down telephone and broadband lines or equipment as it would be for damaging energy facilities. And senators want to make first-degree trespassing a low-grade felony if it happens at an energy facility or public water system plant.

The proposal marks another effort by legislators to address power grid protections amid a surge in attacks on U.S. substations, primarily in the Carolinas and Pacific Northwest.

“We must send a message that the would-be actors of these attacks will not be tolerated, and perpetrators will be held responsible for the chaos and the damage they create,” Sen. Tom McInnis, a Moore County Republican and bill sponsor, said at a Legislative Building news conference.

Authorities said one or more people drove up to two Duke Energy substations in Moore County on Dec. 3, breached their gates and opened fire on them. Substations turn high-voltage electricity into the lower voltages that can be used by residences and businesses. At the outage peak, 45,000 customers were without power before it was completely restored several days later.

An electric cooperative said two weeks ago that someone fired at a substation in Randolph County, causing damages but no outages. No arrests have been made in either case.

Senators said Moore County restaurants, resorts and residents suffered financial losses, such as spoiled food in refrigerators. Schools were forced to close and ill people couldn’t access needed oxygen, said Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican and co-sponsor.

The tougher penalties wouldn’t be retroactive to the Moore and Randolph cases if they became law.

“The current laws on the books were ineffective. They did not deter this crime,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican, former Duke Energy executive and another sponsor. “This law should and we believe will deter any further similar activity.”

State Rep. Ben Moss, a Richmond County Republican whose district includes Moore, introduced a measure last week that would require utilities to provide some form of 24-hour security at substations.

A similar proposal offered in the South Carolina Senate would set a sliding scale on prison time based on how much damage is done, with a maximum 25-year penalty if anyone died or their health was endangered by a resulting outage.