Heat and hot water are slowly returning to Aspen after purported vandalism cut off gas service to around 3,500 customers over the weekend.
The service interruption came as the mountain community faces freezing temperatures and a surge of tourism around the holidays. By the end of the day Tuesday, Black Hills Energy reported the company had restored service to about 2,000 homes and businesses. Carly West, a utility spokesperson, said 170 technicians will continue to light pilot lights and check for toxic gases to fully restore service.
“Given the number or properties and properties with no one home, it will likely take a few days,” West said.
Local and federal law enforcement officers are investigating the cause of the outage, which they said appeared to be deliberate. Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn said Black Hills Energy first received reports of gas problems on the day after Christmas. Technicians and police later found evidence of tampering at three separate locations.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Transportation Security Administration are assisting with the investigation since it concerns critical infrastructure.
At two of those sites, Linn said police found graffiti on pipeline equipment reading “Earth First!”, an outside-the-mainstream environmental group with roots in the American West.
Earth First! was established in 1979 and has a history of promoting sabotage to protect the environment. Dave Foreman, the group’s founder, wrote a book on such tactics called “Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching,” which explains how to pour sand into a bulldozer’s fuel tank, among other ideas.
Linn said no group has claimed responsibility so far. Aspen officers contacted someone at the Earth First! Journal, who said the organization usually takes credit for actions through statements, not by writing messages on equipment in permanent marker, Linn said.
Former and current members of Earth First! have not responded to requests for comment from CPR News.
The vandalism did not appear to be haphazard. Broken locks and effective tampering suggests a higher level of research or previous knowledge about the natural gas system, according to Linn.
“Whether it’s a former employee or someone with an environmental concern, somebody clearly is sending a message intentionally,” he said. “It's just right now we don't 100 percent know what message they were trying to send.”
Meanwhile, the City of Aspen declared a state of emergency Tuesday due to the gas outage. In a press release, City Manager Scott Miller said the move gives the city the “tools necessary to protect human safety,” including access to properties and flexibility to shelter vulnerable populations.