NEWS- False alarm: Electric tower incident not sabotage
It had all the makings of Charlottesville's first frightening brush with domestic terrorism: some missing nuts on a high-power electric tower, an FBI investigation, and a Western Albemarle neighborhood wondering why some latter-day Timothy McVeigh had chosen it of all places for sabotage. Turns out it was all a big misunderstanding.
Although initially described by Albemarle Police when it was discovered in January as a "very serious" attempt to damage two high-power electrical towers, authorities now say the alleged vandalism or sabotage turned out to be neither. But not before the FBI was called in to investigate.
The Hook broke the story of the alleged damage near Ivy online January 16. A day later, Dominion Virginia Power said it was all a case of miscommunication.
According to company spokesperson Karl Neddenien, a contract maintenance crew was performing a routine bolt replacement procedure when they ran out of materials. Neddenien says the crew left the work site in a safe condition for the two weeks necessary for new steel bolts to be fabricated.
On January 10, a local Dominion crew, unaware of the refurbishment work, checked on the site in the West Leigh neighborhood and discovered the missing bolts. They immediately reported the problem to Dominion, which in turn notified local law enforcement authorities.
Exactly one week passed before the communication error was discovered. The FBI and police investigation was halted January 17, according to Albemarle County police detective Phil Giles.
Neddenien calls the miscommunication a "mistake," and adds that he regrets that the company error caused "some consternation in the neighborhood" that he would like to see "corrected soon."
The high voltage transmission towers are part of an interconnected grid system of over 6,000 miles of line that transports power across Virginia, according to company spokesperson David Botkins.
Three nuts were completely removed from one tower and eight nuts loosened on a another, according to Giles. Although the two towers were damaged, Giles says they are "not in danger of falling"– that is, unless more nuts are removed.
Each steel lattice-construction tower is around 100 feet tall, with four legs that sit on large concrete bases with four pairs of nuts to lock each leg in place. A quick visit January 16 by a Hook photographer found new alloy nuts on two of the four bases of the tower closest to Wendover Drive, a quiet cul-de-sac.
When it was still under investigation, Giles called the incident the first electrical tower vandalism in the area. And according to Dominion Virginia's Neddenien, the incident was the first time in its history that the company has noticed damage to equipment serious enough to warrant contacting local law enforcement.
Giles had speculated that since three nuts were completely removed on one tower and several loosened on the other, the perpetrator or perpetrators may have been unable to complete the job. "It looks," he says, "like they got frustrated and left." And it appears that's exactly what happened.
Dominion Virginia Power is still investigating how the company might avoid such communication difficulties in the future, Neddenien says.