The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Bill would expand penalties for attacking infrastruc­ture

Bipartisan group’s proposal elevates acts to felonies.

- By Meris Lutz

Following a string of high-profile attacks around the nation, a bipartisan group of Georgia lawmakers is 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 at five electrical substation­s surroundin­g Baltimore, aiming to “completely destroy” the city.

Brandon Russell of Orlando, Fla., a founder of the neo-nazi group Atom-waffen Division, and Sarah Clendaniel of Catonsvill­e, Md., 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 Atom-waffen 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 ... 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, Rep. Rob Leverett, said concern is high, pointing to a gunfire attack in December on substation­s in North Carolina’s Moore County 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,” Georgia EMC spokesman Walter Jones said. “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 also has 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.

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 Noncivil Committee, Leverett said.

 ?? KARL DEBLAKER/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Workers examine equipment at the West End Substation in North Carolina’s Moore County, where gunfire at electrical substation­s cut power to thousands of residents during a December cold snap.
KARL DEBLAKER/ASSOCIATED PRESS Workers examine equipment at the West End Substation in North Carolina’s Moore County, where gunfire at electrical substation­s cut power to thousands of residents during a December cold snap.

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