By Jamie Leary

ASPEN, Colo. (CBS4) – Hundreds of homes are still without heat in the Aspen area following an act of vandalism that some are calling an environmental attack. The FBI is now involved in the investigation.

“I would describe this as very serious, of course because, at a minimum, this has been a giant inconvenience to 3,500 properties and many, many more people than that,” said Bill Linn, Assistant Chief for the Aspen Police Department.

Gas was intentionally shut off at three pumping stations in the area. With no security cameras, investigators were left to analyze graffiti with the words “Earth First!” written on one of the pipes.

(credit: City of Aspen)

“The graffiti indicates perhaps some sort of affiliation with some sort of environmental group, but it’s not necessarily proof that it’s anything in particular,” said Linn.

Linn said Aspen Police were first alerted to the crime Saturday night, after responding to a call from a concerned homeowner.

“Initially, we were called to a noise at one of the gas pumping stations that just alarmed one of the neighbors there.”

Linn said they discovered Black Hills Energy was already on scene, responding to a censor indicating low pressure, and that’s when they connected the dots.

“They immediately noticed that some of the valves on some of the gas lines had been turned off and of course that doesn’t happen by accident. That was an intentional act,” said Linn.

Investigators say the individual or individuals responsible, will face several felony charges, including tampering with utilities transmission lines, or possibly a tampering charge unassociated with utilities, and a burglary charge.

Linn says one of the pumping stations was located inside of a structure.

“The gas was turned back on, but because of the way the gas was snapped off and snapped back on, apparently that created some voids in the system and so for safety’s sake, Black Hills Energy had to turn every single meter in the area completely off,” said Linn.

Black Hills Energy had to purge, repressurize and test the system before it was able to begin turning meters back on and relight pilot lights.

On Tuesday morning it began addressing each of the 3,500 homes and businesses impacted, one by one.

“We need to actually go to each meter, turn it on, test the internal piping system and relight all the internal appliances,” said Mark Arnold, Senior Operations Manager for Black Hills Energy.

The company set up a mobile command center just outside of downtown Aspen and as of Tuesday morning had checked in 160 technicians who came to assist, some from as far away as Iowa.

“Due to snow conditions, distance … things like that, we don’t really have an exact timeframe for when we’re going to get everybody back on,” said Arnold.

Black Hills Energy donated around 4,000 space heaters to the community. More than 2,000 had been given away by Tuesday morning.

The energy company said it would work into Tuesday evening and through the day Wednesday to get utilities restored, but had no estimated time for completion. Arnold said the process to restore gas services to each property can take as little as 20 minutes or as long as an hour — and most of the time requires the property owner to be home.

“I started Sunday night, spent 30 hours here, went home slept for a while and have now been back here since about 5:30 this morning,” said Arnold. “Nothing you can really do other than just get in the saddle and start getting to work.”

Aspen police and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office are working with the FBI on the case.

“I’d just ask the public to take a look at the photos we’ve distributed, and … just see if it strikes a chord with you. Someone might recognize the handwriting, or someone might say, ‘The handwriting said Earth First’ — someone might see that and say, ‘You know, so-and-so had just been talking about Earth First, or natural gas.’ Who knows? If someone has an idea, we’re open to tips,” said Linn.

If you have any information that might be helpful to police, you’re asked to contact the Aspen Police Department at 970-920-5400.

Jamie Leary