Aspen investigation continues as natural gas comes back, along with heat |

Aspen investigation continues as natural gas comes back, along with heat

Black Hills Energy technicians fan out across town to restore service to 2,000 customers by Tuesday night

Seth Hulquist with Black Hills Energy turns gas on at a property on Main St. in Aspen on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020. Hulquist and his coworker traveled from Nebraska after volunteering to help with the outage in Aspen. The command center gave a list of 54 properties to Hulquist to relight. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

A second reference to a radical environmental advocacy organization was found at another vandalized natural gas pumping site near Aspen, a police official said Tuesday.

However, it remained unclear Tuesday whether a member or members of Earth First! were behind the vandalization of three Black Hills Energy sites in and around Aspen on Saturday night. That act led to 3,500 residences going without heat and hot water for nearly three days, said Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn. As of Tuesday night, service had been restored to about 2,000 customers.

Aspen detectives were in contact Monday with a woman at “Earth First! Journal” about the references to the group found at two sites of the three sites, he said.

“(She) wouldn’t talk about our incident,” Linn said. “But (she) said that if they were involved, they would send a letter taking credit for it.”

Law enforcement working on the case — which includes Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies and Aspen police officers — have not received any letter, email or other message taking credit for the vandalism and subsequent chaos it caused, Linn said.

The sabotage was first discovered Saturday night at an undisclosed natural gas pumping station located within the city limits after Aspen police officers found that locks had been “defeated,” police have said. Not long after, deputies discovered similar tampering at a pump station in Pitkin County.

A total of three sites were hit, two in the county and one in the city. “Earth First!” was written in black marker on a pipe at one of the county sites and on another piece of equipment at the other county site, he said. Both county sites featured “security measures,” though neither were located within buildings.

The city site was located inside a building, but references to Earth First! were not found there, Linn said. He declined to release the exact locations of the vandalism.

Detectives investigating the case had no suspects as of Tuesday afternoon, though they did have people in mind they wanted to speak with, he said. Teams of officers also were running down investigative leads Tuesday and trying to find possible witnesses.

“We are putting a lot of resources toward this,” Linn said.

Police released a photo Monday of one of the “Earth First!” tags, hoping someone might recognize the handwriting, which appeared to be same at both county sites, he said. The police department did receive tips Monday and Tuesday, Linn said.

The words "Earth First!" were written gas pipe that was tampered with near Aspen over the weekend, officials said Monday.

In addition, detectives gathered physical evidence from the scene, though Linn admitted that nothing appears to on par with a “smoking gun.” Handwriting, however, is a solid piece of evidence, Linn said.

Police have said that whoever committed the vandalism — in essence turning off gas valves and de-pressurizing the system — had some idea of what they were doing. At this point, however, it’s difficult to surmise much beyond that.

“It’s hard to know what the actual intention was,” Linn said. “But it was clearly an intentional act. Whether they foresaw the heat being out for three days we don’t know.”

The FBI has offered resources that would be unavailable to local detectives investigating the case, he said. FBI agents are not in town actively helping or leading the investigation, which is headed by Aspen police Sgt. Rick Magnuson.

Meanwhile, gas service started to return to Aspen residences and businesses Tuesday thanks to 170 or so Black Hills Energy technicians called in from across the Midwest.

Those technicians began returning service to homes and businesses in Aspen early Tuesday morning, said Carly West, a Black Hills spokeswoman.

A pressure test of the natural gas distribution system was completed by the company around 3 a.m. Tuesday.

“Immediately following restoration of system pressure, technicians began relighting vulnerable residential customers, and this morning technicians spread across the city to begin relighting customers,” according to a Black Hills news release late Tuesday morning.

West said technicians began focusing on Aspen residents at-large at about 7 a.m., while the news release stated they would fan out in a grid pattern across the city to “restore gas service to as many of the 3,500 impacted customers as quickly as possible.”

“Individual relight orders will not be processed until an initial pass across the city is completed …,” the release states. “Residential customers will be prioritized during daylight hours, and after 11 p.m. technicians will work to restore service to commercial and government buildings.”

That strategy changed Tuesday, and technicians began bringing Aspen businesses back online at the same time they were tending to residences, West said.

In an update Tuesday night, Black Hills said service had been restored to approximately 2,000 of the 3,500 customers (about 65%). At that rate, crews could have gas service restored to everyone by late Wednesday afternoon, they estimated Tuesday night.

“Crews continue to provide updates on their progress to the command center and have reported the relight process is going smoothly but taking time,” the update said. “While projections of completing nearly all relights by late afternoon on Wednesday are based on progress thus far, many factors could impact completion of the task, including complications from weather or difficulty connecting with customers in order to enter a residence to relight and test appliances.”

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said two Black Hills technicians from Kansas relit the pilot at his Aspen home Tuesday. The men were helpful and intent on restoring gas service to the city, he said.

“They were incredibly selfless and happy to help us,” DiSalvo said. “They really felt like they were doing the community a good deed, which they were. I said, ‘You guys are heroic.’”



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