FBI helping with investigation into Aspen-area natural gas outage

Black Hill Energy "hopeful“ to begin relights for residential customers by Monday evening

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

The name of a radical environmental advocacy organization was scrawled Saturday on a pipe at a natural gas pumping station near Aspen that was vandalized, Aspen police said Monday.

It was not clear Monday whether members of the “Earth First!” group were involved in the intentional disruption of gas service to the Aspen area — which resulted in thousands of people living without heat or hot water — but the name was found at one of three Black Hills Energy sites vandalized, said Bill Linn, Aspen assistant police chief.

“They would have had to have some familiarity with the system” to pull off the sabotage, Linn said. “They tampered with flow lines. They turned off gas lines.”

Emails sent Monday to the Earth First! organization seeking comment were not immediately returned. Linn said police have not received any communication from Earth First! taking credit for the gas line incidents.

Meanwhile, weather, temperatures and deep snow slowed Black Hills Energy employees, who had to visit each of approximately 3,500 affected natural gas meters and turn them off, Black Hills spokeswoman Carly West said Monday morning.

But at about 2:30 p.m., technicians from Black Hills Energy had only turned off 1,000 gas meters and had 2,500 more to go, said Vance Crocker, vice president of operations.

Black Hills has about 150 technicians in Aspen to help remedy the problem, Crocker said Monday night during a community meeting. Some are from other energy companies such as Xcel, Sitewise, Q3 and Mears, and those companies also helped get 4,000 heaters in place, he said.

“We’re hopeful that by late afternoon (or) early evening, we will have all the meters shut off,” he said during a news conference Monday. Relighting of the individual pilot lights could begin Monday night, he said, once the system is tested and pressurized.

“Where we’re at right now, by this evening, mid-to-late evening we think we’re going to be done with the actual purging and pressurizing the system then we can go back and begin the relighting process,” Crocker said at the community meeting, adding, “The relighting process will begin very late tonight and continue into the early-morning hours and into Tuesday.”

The company’s timeline for relighting 3,500 individual pilot lights said they will go until 11 p.m. Monday and then will continue Tuesday starting at 5 a.m., according to a Pitkin Alert. A resident over the age of 18 must be present for technicians to relight the pilots.

West encouraged homeowners to help technicians by using a broom or their hands to uncover gas meters. Do not use hard or sharp objects to clear away snow from the meters.

Customers may smell a faint natural gas due to the controlled release during the purging of the lines, officials said Monday.

That is normal and is step one in the multi-step process, Crocker said Monday night, and reminded customers that they should not attempt to relight appliances on their own.

The timeline to relight pilots, however, may be affected by a snowstorm forecast to hit the Aspen area, followed by temperatures expected in the mid-to-low 20s on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Also, West said the relighting will start Tuesday but might not get to all the customers. She said Monday night that in the first wave of technicians going door to door about 50% to 60% of customer will be home and have service restored. Those not home will get a door tag with information on setting up a time for a technician to return.

“The best case, we’ll have the majority of the relights in the first pass through with technicians,” West said. “My expectation is that the bulk of our customers will have gas restored after that first pass.”

Black Hills delivered 4,000 space heaters from Denver on Monday for distribution. That started happening about 5 p.m. Monday on Main Street in front of the Aspen Police Station.

Detective Danielle Madril passes a heater into a vehicle outside of the Aspen Police Department on Monday, Dec. 28, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

HEATER PICKUP: Space heaters available by Aspen Police Department station

Holy Cross Energy spokeswoman Jenna Weatherred said Monday night they are ready for the extra strain on the electrical grid because of 4,000 space heaters being used in Aspen.

“We are ready, ” she said. “It’s something our engineering team has been discussing today.”

Holy Cross has an agreement with Xcel Energy to be able to pull power from their sources to feed the Aspen area should more electricity become necessary. She also cautioned people using space heaters to place them in a good spot where they won’t tip over and not to forget to turn them off when not needed.

No one has been reported injured because of the gas outage, and outreach is being conducted to vulnerable citizens, Linn said.

At Monday’s virtual news conference, Linn said the situation with the gas lines first came to Black Hills’ attention about 8:30 p.m. Saturday when the company was notified there was no gas pressure at a location in Aspen. Then, just before 11 p.m., a city resident called police to report hearing “uncommon sounds” from a natural gas station near the resident’s home.

“They said it might be a gas leak,” Linn said.

Aspen police officers responded to the location along with Black Hills employees and “recognized it had been physically tampered with,” he said. Not long after, Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies responded to a call at a natural gas station outside the city limits in the county. Details about that incident were not available Monday, though Linn said the “Earth First!” graffiti was written on a pipe at the station in the county.

A total of three locations were vandalized, one in the city and two in the county, Linn said. At two locations, the gas valves were not located in buildings, while the third was housed inside a building that was burglarized, he said. All had “security measures” in place that were tampered with.

“Locks were defeated,” Linn said.

All three locations were hit around the same time, he said, though it was not clear Monday how many people were involved or why Aspen was targeted. Anyone with information about the vandalism should call the Aspen Police Department at 970-920-5400 and follow the prompts to report it.

Black Hills technicians were initially able to turn the gas valves back on Saturday night, but some residences had trouble reviving gas service, he said. Black Hills officials then determined Sunday night that the system had to be shut down manually house by house, tested and re-pressurized and then manually, house by house rebooted again, he said.

Police and deputies were able to gather physical evidence from the scenes, including at least one set of footprints in the snow leading up to one location, Linn said. Cameras were not installed at the three locations.

The FBI, which has a critical infrastructure department, was working with local detectives on the incidents, Linn said. In addition, local detectives are working with state law enforcement officials to look back and see if there were any clues left before the gas disruption indicating it was going to happen.

The fact that a person or persons struck more than one gas transfer site appears to point to an intentional attack on just the city of Aspen during what is traditionally the busiest week of the year.

“It’s almost, to me, an act of terrorism,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper, who was without heat Monday at her Smuggler Mountain-area home. “It’s trying to destroy a mountain community at the height of the holiday season. This wasn’t a national gas glitch. This was a purposeful act.

“Someone is looking to make a statement of some kind.”

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said Monday he didn’t think the disruption of gas service was an attack.

“I know that word has been thrown around a lot,” he said. “It’s not a word I would use.”

Instead, he characterized it as “an intentional act” to disrupt gas service to Aspen.

Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock also said Monday he wasn’t ready to characterize the gas outage as an “attack” because it needed more investigation. However, if it was vandalism, the consequences — whether intentional or unintentional — were hurting people and businesses already reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is having a major impact on people’s lives,” Peacock said. “If it was an intentional act — that’s unbelievable.”

Linn said city officials normally would be trying to organize a warming station at a local gymnasium or other location, but COVID-19 protocols didn’t allow such actions.

Aspen Valley Hospital wasn’t affected by the outage, said Gabe Muething, director of Aspen Ambulance. The Pitkin County Jail, however, was affected and inmates were making do Monday with electric space heaters, DiSalvo said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the locations of the vandalism occurred at one location in Aspen and two locations in Pitkin County.