Following a string of high-profile attacks around the nation, a group of Georgia lawmakers are seeking to increase penalties for anyone intentionally damaging critical infrastructure, including power, water and telecommunications equipment.
House Bill 227 would elevate such acts of sabotage to felonies. Under the proposed changes, violators would face up to 20 years in prison as well as financial liability for damages.
Georgia is one of several states considering such legislation amid a rise in threats to infrastructure, particularly the power grid. The U.S Department of Energy saw a sharp increase in reports of vandalism and physical attacks targeting electrical infrastructure between 2021 and 2022.
On Monday, federal authorities in Maryland said they had arrested two people with extremist ties on charges of conspiring to attack Baltimore’s power grid during cold weather, the Associated Press reported. The pair allegedly planned to shoot five electrical substations that circle the Baltimore area, aiming to “completely destroy” the city.
Brandon Russell of Orlando, Florida, a founder of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, and Sarah Clendaniel of Catonsville, Maryland were influenced by a racist ideology to attack the predominantly Black city, according to the complaint against them. Russell was on supervised release from federal prison after pleading guilty to explosives charges at the time of his most recent arrest.
The Southern Poverty Law Center considers the mission of the Atomwaffen Division — recently renamed by its leaders as the National Socialist Order — to be “civilizational collapse,” the AP said.
“The U.S. Department of Energy takes the security of the nation’s power grid very seriously and will continue to work with law enforcement, interagency partners, and utilities to address any and all interruptions of electric power and threats to our electric system reliability,” said a department spokesperson.
In Georgia, there have been no known recent attacks. But the sponsor of HB 227, State Rep. Rob Leverett, said concern is high, pointing to a gunfire attack in December on substations in Moore County, North Carolina that left tens of thousands of people without power for several days.
“They were without power during one of the worst cold snaps we’ve had in a long time,” said Leverett, a Republican representing Elberton. “Damaging this sort of property, I think, is different and has much broader impact than some other kinds of damage to property.”
The attack in Moore County remains under investigation and authorities have not announced any motives or suspects. In Washington State, two men were arrested last month for allegedly attacking substations as part of a plot to disrupt power as they burgled a local business.
Brian Harrell, a former assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said law enforcement has seen a “significant uptick” in online chatter among domestic extremists surrounding power distribution and transmission substations in particular.
“Power stations are an attractive target and domestic terror groups know that destroying this infrastructure can have a crippling effect on industry, citizens, and local governments,” Harrell said. “It’s difficult to protect all energy assets.”
Whether the motives for damaging infrastructure are ideological or more prosaic, like theft, Harrell said stronger penalties are needed.
“This is domestic terrorism, pure and simple, and needs to be treated as such,” he said.
Meanwhile, Georgia utilities have lined up behind the proposed legislation.
“The electric cooperatives in Georgia support this bill as a way to protect their member/consumers from disruptions in their power,” said Georgia EMC spokesman Walter Jones. “People need electricity — and other critical infrastructure — in their jobs, schools and homes for cooking, heating, communicating and even supporting medical treatments.”
Georgia Power spokesman Jacob Hawkins said the company supports efforts to deter vandalism or interfere with critical infrastructure. He said the utility has also invested in additional security measures, including ballistic walls that can withstand gunfire, fire suppression systems and protective barriers designed to resist entry.
Oglethorpe Power and Georgia Transmission issued a joint statement in support of the bill.
“The provisions included in HB 227 would continue to support our readiness efforts and protect our critical infrastructure,” they said.
State Rep. Don Parsons, a Republican representing parts of Cobb and Cherokee counties and the chair of the House Energy & Utilities Committee, said the protected infrastructure is “vital to providing electricity or telecommunications.”
“It’s extremely important for many reasons, including national security, economic development and providing services to the citizens of the state,” he added.
The bill has been assigned to the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, Leverett said.
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Credit: Miguel Martinez & Seth Wenig