Insurer blames Black Hills, property manager for home flood in wake of attack on Aspen gas lines |

Insurer blames Black Hills, property manager for home flood in wake of attack on Aspen gas lines

One of the natural gas stations in the Aspen area that was sabotaged Dec. 26, 2020.
File photo

The December 2020 sabotage of three gas lines that put 3,500 households and businesses in Aspen without heat was partly due to a utility provider’s failure to “adequately secure its gas service lines from unauthorized tampering and damage,” according to allegations made in an insurer’s complaint against Black Hills Energy.

After paying a homeowner’s claim for flood damage to his Red Butte home, New Jersey-based Federal Insurance Co. is suing Black Hills Energy and an individual property manager. The carrier was contractually obligated under the homeowner’s policy to pay the claim, but Federal Insurance Co.’s lawsuit seeks a judgment ordering Black Hills and the property manager to pay the carrier’s cost and expenses, in addition to damages to be determined at a jury trial.  

Black Hills representatives declined to comment about the suit. The company’s formal response to the lawsuit says it isn’t liable for the damages, and it had no control over events, such as the home flood, that followed the sabotage. 

Denver law firm Cozen O’Connor filed Federal Insurance Co.’s suit Dec. 23 in Pitkin County District Court, three years after what authorities believe was a saboteur or group of saboteurs who turned the natural-gas line valves, so that the entire natural-gas delivery system to Aspen was depressurized. Only gas service in Aspen city limits was compromised. 

 “Earth First!” was written on the pipes at two of the three locations, The Aspen Times reported. 

Temperatures also dipped into the single digits then, and Black Hills Energy brought in technicians to turn off and on the gas meters at every impacted residence and business, a process that took three days before natural-gas service was near fully restored in Aspen. The company also offered free space heaters to people affected. 

The Red Butte home, however, continued without natural gas, according to the suit. 

“On or about December 30, 2020, at approximately 8:00 p.m., Black Hills reported it had restored natural gas services to 97% of homes and businesses impacted by the service interruption,” the suit says, noting the Red Butte home “did not have natural-gas service restored because (the homeowner) was not in residence at the time, and it was unoccupied when Black Hills’ employees allegedly arrived attempting to restore natural gas services.”

A criminal investigation by the Aspen Police Department, aided by cooperating agencies, has yet to yield a suspect or an arrest. Black Hills also offered $10,000 for information leading to an arrest. 

“We made the case inactive last month,” said Rick Magnuson, investigations sergeant with Aspen Police, in an email. “This means that we do not have any active leads to follow; if we get any more leads, we will re-open the case and investigate as appropriate. There is still a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction.”

He recognized the assistance provided by Black Hills Energy, Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI. 

“We will continue to accept tips and we will diligently follow up on leads,” he said. 

The lawsuit alleges the house’s water lines froze and broke after the sabotage cut off the home’s heat. When the water thawed, it leaked into the home “causing significant” damages to the residence and owner’s personal belongings, the suit alleges.

Federal Insurance Co. also alleges that Black Hills Energy didn’t thoroughly notify customers about the outage despite its outreach efforts at the time. 

“Black Hills attempted to notify impacted customers of the gas curtailment … by posting statements on Black Hills’ website, its social media-accounts, sending press releases to local news outlets, and sending employees to knock on the door of impacted homes and businesses and leaving tags on the doors of homes where no one answered. Black Hills did not undertake any efforts to provide direct notification to its customers,” the suit says. 

The answer from Black Hills, dated Feb. 2, countered the owner of the home was not in Aspen at the time the gas was off and had opted out of Black Hills’ text-message and e-mail message service that would have alerted them to the outage. 

Black Hills’ response also said its three locations that were struck were secure “as service was disrupted as a result of a criminal coordinated attack at three different locations — two district regulation stations and one town border station — by individuals with knowledge of a gas-distribution system …. The town border station was located inside a locked building. The two district regulation stations were located in remote outdoor areas protected by bollard barricades and secured with hardened paddle locks.”

That runs counter to Federal Insurance Co.’s position that “at least two of the Black Hills’ natural gas sites were not contained within locked buildings, but rather in unprotected, outdoor areas that were unsecured and accessible to the public.”

Federal Insurance Co.’s lawsuit also alleges property manager Darlene Snyder, who is named as a defendant, committed negligence by failing to “take reasonable steps to ensure natural-gas service was restored to the Subject Property and otherwise failing to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances.”

Both Black Hills and Snyder, the suit alleges, were responsible for remedying the situation during the time frame within Dec. 30, 2000, and Jan. 10, 2021. Snyder discovered the flood damage when she was inspecting the home on Jan. 10 for a guest’s arrival, the suit says. 

She lives in Glenwood Springs and could not be reached for comment. According to an obituary published by the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent on Sept. 21, 2021, Snyder’s husband died on Jan. 5, 2021 — which falls within the time frame she was alleged to have been negligent. 

Cozon O’Connor lawyer W. Gustin Vandi, who filed the suit, did not respond to an email asking if the death of Snyder’s husband impacts the argument that she should be held responsible for the flood damage. A telephone voice message also was not returned. 

The suit doesn’t specify the amount in damages Federal Insurance Co. is seeking, but a cover sheet to the complaint indicates it is at least $100,000.