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Duke Energy power equipment in Durham found damaged from gunfire after power outage, police say

Downed power lines on Pine Island are visible on Monday.
Carlos Osorio for NPR
File: Downed power lines.

Damage to a utility's power equipment by gunfire found in Durham was associated with an outage that left hundreds of people without power earlier this week, the company said.

About 730 people experienced a power outage for about two hours on Monday after reports of “a fire and equipment failure” on Duke Energy's power distribution grid, spokesperson Jeff Brooks said in an email.

A day later, the Durham Police Department, with assistance from the FBI, responded to an area in southeast Durham after receiving a call about the damaged power equipment, according to a police statement. The company's workers told officers that the equipment had been damaged by gunfire within the past week.

Damage from the gunfire caused a “slow oil leak” from the power equipment, which ultimately led to a fire breaking out, police said. The incident is under investigation and no one had been arrested as of Thursday. While Duke Energy verified the damage was associated with the outage, Brooks said the company hasn't confirmed what ultimately led to the equipment failing and is waiting until the investigation is completed.

“We have been working to strengthen our electric grid to make it more resistant to extended outages from severe weather, as well as physical and cyber threats,” Brooks said. “We are also improving the resiliency of the grid to help restore power faster when a disruption occurs.”

Officials didn't immediately specify what kind of equipment was damaged.

The incident comes as North Carolina lawmakers have advanced legislation to toughen penalties for people who carry out attacks on infrastructure such as public water sites and manufacturing facilities.

Property damage to utility services has gotten attention since two power substations were shot at in Moore County in December 2022. The incident left thousands of residents without power in frigid temperatures for days. Arrests still have not been made.

In response, Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill unanimously passed by state legislators last year that increased penalties for people who purposefully damage energy facilities and telephone and broadband equipment.

Now, the state legislature is looking to expand punishments for intentionally damaging a wider variety of infrastructure services, including public water systems, wastewater treatment facilities, public utilities and manufacturing facilities. The penalty for damaging those areas on purpose would be a felony, according to the bill.

It also allows for people who suffer harm as a result of infrastructure property damage to sue the person who committed the crime or aided it.

“This is just an extension of our critical infrastructure protection in our state,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Newton said in the Senate Agriculture, Energy, and Environment Committee last week.

The bill has since been referred to another committee since its approval in the agriculture committee, but it has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.