Although there has been no formal communication from the organization claiming responsibility, investigators have a photo from one of the three Black Hills Energy sites that were vandalized Saturday night showing two words scrawled nearby: Earth First!
About 3,500 customers were left without heat or hot water by what’s being characterized as a criminal incident, including much of the downtown commercial core. While the Federal Bureau of Investigations is aiding local authorities, law enforcement Monday afternoon tried several times to soften the language being used to describe the event — potential felonies occurred, yes, but not ecoterrorism or even attacks, Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo emphasized.
“I know that word’s been thrown around a lot — it’s not the word I would use to characterize this event. I would say it is an intentional act to disrupt gas service and the surrounding area with felony level criminal nature,” he said during Monday afternoon’s media briefing on the matter. “I think ‘attack’ may be a mischaracterization, at least from my perspective and somewhat hyperbolic.”
Aspen Police Assistant Chief Bill Linn assured that the FBI’s involvement in the investigation is because of the expertise the agency offers as it specifically pertains to critical infrastructure, including utilities.
“They have specialty knowledge and capacities,” Linn said.
As with everything, the COVID-19 pandemic creates additional challenges in addressing the potential public health crisis — although the situation currently poses no threat of imminent danger — and Mother Nature poses additional potential obstacles, with a snow storm in the forecast that could prevent the delivery of 3,000 space heaters ordered from Denver.
“It’s unfortunately complicated by the fact that there’s a winter storm rolling in. We anticipate putting more information out about that later this afternoon. We do have a system devised to distribute those, but we do need to make sure that they're going to be making it here before we make that promise,” Linn said, calling the endeavor “one of our No. 1 efforts.”
Additionally, Pitkin County Health and Human Services is working to ensure particularly vulnerable populations are safe.
“I will tell you that the COVID circumstance is definitely dictating a lot of our considerations,” Linn said. “If we were not in a COVID circumstance, we would work to get up warming stations in mass settings. Obviously because of COVID, we can’t take over a gymnasium or the like, so at the moment.”
Authorities are hopeful that somebody saw something — right now, a single set of footprints in the snow of one of the sites and some, the photograph naming Earth First and some other physical evidence comprise most of the investigation. Aspen Police updated its phone tree from the department’s main line, 970-920-5400, to accept tips.
This is a developing story that will be updated.