Price tag for Aspen’s Christmas gas line sabotage: $1.4 million
Aspen Police continue investigation into what cut off heat for 3 days during holiday week 2020
Black Hills Energy spent well over $1 million to fix sabotaged gas lines that cut heat to many Aspen area homes and businesses between Christmas and New Year’s, a company spokeswoman said this week.
“Although we are still reviewing the total cost impact, our estimates are approximately $1.4 million,” Carly West said in an email to The Aspen Times. “The majority of the costs associated with the incident were labor related expenses and mutual aid labor incurred from other utilities who stepped in to help out.”
Meanwhile, Aspen police, who had not heard the cost estimate, continue to investigate the incident, which cut gas service to about 3,500 Aspen residences for three days while December temperatures dipped into the single digits at night.
“That’s a lot of money,” said Sgt. Rick Magnuson, head of the Aspen Police Department’s investigative unit. “One-point-four million makes it a Class II felony, which is a very serious case.”
A Class II felony is on par with attempted murder and is punishable by eight to 24 years in prison under Colorado law.
The sabotage occurred Dec. 26 at three locations in the Aspen area, two in unincorporated Pitkin County and one within the city limits. The problem did not appear to be a huge issue at first, though the magnitude of the impact became apparent the next day when Black Hills workers realized they would have to manually turn off gas meters at each individual residence, re-pressurize the system, test it, then individually return to each residence and business to turn on meters again.
That left those homes and businesses in the city without heat, hot water and, for some, the ability to cook during the coldest, busiest time of Aspen’s winter season. Despite a snowstorm that further complicated the situation, no injuries were reported.
Law enforcement and Black Hills workers discovered that the saboteur or saboteurs wrote “Earth First!” on gasline pipes protruding from the ground at the vandalized sites in the county. The site in the city that was tampered with was located within a locked building that was burglarized. At all three sites, locks and chains that secured gas valves were cut and the valves were turned in a way that depressurized the entire system.
The outage only affected locations within the city of Aspen, including the downtown core, Aspen Mountain and Aspen Skiing Co. infrastructure, Red Mountain, Cemetery Lane, Mountain Valley and up Highway 82 just past McFarlane Creek. The outage narrowly missed affecting Aspen Valley Hospital in the Castle Creek Valley.
The sabotage was not a matter of turning just one valve and required knowledge of the system to accomplish, Magnuson said.
“The average person would have no idea how to do this,” he said earlier this week.
For that reason, detectives interviewed current and former Black Hills employees as part of their investigation, Magnuson said, though suspects have been hard to identify.
“We don’t have any active suspects right now,” he said.
Nothing has come of the Earth First! angle either. The radical environmental advocacy organization has not taken responsibility for the incident, and neither has anyone or any other group, Magnuson said.
“There have been no claims of responsibility,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I take it as a political statement. I don’t know what the motivation was. There’s just not enough information to say.”
An FBI agent based in Glenwood Springs has helped with the investigation and provided information that detectives are currently analyzing, Magnuson said. He declined to specify the type of information.
Black Hills Energy has beefed up security at gasline sites in Aspen and Pitkin County, though Magnuson declined to provide specifics. West, the Black Hills spokeswoman, also declined to provide details of any added security measures.
Magnuson credited Black Hills for its quick and thorough response to the problem, which included distributing space heaters to Aspen residents.
“I give them all the credit in the world,” he said. “They dropped everything … to work solely on this case. They were really concerned about the community.”
West said the $1.4 million price tag for the response was mainly because the company had to call in technicians from all over the West and Midwest to help.
“Due to the specific nature of the vandalism, the complicated process to shut down, examine and secure the system, and then reinstate gas to each of our customers, the process was very labor intensive,” she said. “The safety and security of our customers, employees and our system was our primary focus and it took a large team to do the work necessary.”
The impact to the Aspen business community — restaurants and other businesses were forced to shut down during one of the most lucrative times of the year — was not possible to calculate, said Pete Strecker, the city of Aspen’s finance director. That’s because other factors, especially the COVID-19 pandemic, were already affecting the city’s economic picture and made it impossible to determine the economic carnage, he said.
Magnuson said he and another detective investigating the case are very motivated to find out who is behind the sabotage.
“The impacts to the community were massive,” he said. “That’s why I really want to solve it.”
The differences between Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo and Michael Buglione — whether professional, political or personal — were on full display at Thursday’s candidate debate held in Aspen.