WASHINGTON -- New England's electricity operator has unsuccessfully sought millions in Homeland Security money following the attacks of Sept. 11 to bolster its defenses against terrorist strikes that could darken the region.
The denied requests prompted ISO New England, which operates the six-state electricity grid, to abandon plans to build a security wall around a portion of its new $45.5 million facility in Holyoke, which houses the control center overseeing electricity distribution from Connecticut to Maine.
ISO New England made several requests for the money to U.S. Rep. John Olver, an Amherst Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
"They've been very concerned about the possibility of terrorism there," Olver said in a recent interview, referring to what he described as the regional "nerve center" in Holyoke. "Their basic message was that not much attention was being given to those type of places."
Olver is supportive of funding the security upgrades, but was unable to attach earmarks in Homeland Security spending bills because special interest projects are prohibited in such packages, according to Hunter Ridgway, his chief of staff.
"You could make a real mess by knocking out distribution systems," Olver said, adding that a sweeping outage could substantially raise "the fear factor" among Americans by personally touching people in their homes and workplaces.
Terrorists could cause cascading, long-term blackouts with simultaneous attacks on vulnerable facilities, according to a Congressional Budget Office study in 2004.
Although attacks on electricity generation plants would cause minimal disruption because other plants could provide alternate power, precise strikes on key nodes along the grid, such as substations, could disrupt electricity for millions of people, the study said.
Beset by power outages, wastewater facilities could begin dumping untreated water into rivers, hospital life support systems could collapse and large swaths of homes would be dark and unheated, the study said.
An attack on the Holyoke control center, which is deliberately unmarked for security reasons, could cause a major disruption, said Mark Williams, an energy expert and professor at Boston University.
"If you want to knock out electricity in New England, you hit that and it's done," he said.
Fourteen million people receive electricity controlled by the center.
Ken McDonnell, a spokesman for ISO New England, said the facility is robustly defended against physical and cyberspace attacks.
"We've implemented state-of-the-art security measures throughout the company and redundant systems for all our key operations," he said. "Our security didn't suffer as a result of not receiving that money."
Williams, however, said that's not likely.
"If you didn't need a system, then why did you ask for it?" he asked.
McDonnell declined to say how much money was requested for the wall or whether it would have bolstered other security aspects of the sprawling electricity grid, which is owned and operated by private companies.
Ridgway said each request amounted to as much as $2 million.
It would have been a good investment, said Williams.
"Unless a terrorist touches a utility, the funds won't be appropriated," the professor said. "Risk management is about prevention; it's not about responding to an event."