Powerlines (Ecodefense)

The following is part of a series of posts converting to html the monkeywrenching tactics in Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching (3rd edition). See also the PDF of the book.


During the last several years, the sabotage of powerlines has become recognized as a major form of monkeywrenching — due largely to several ill planned and poorly thought-out actions. In fact, sabotage of powerlines is often a poor idea. The reasons arguing against powerline ecotage include:

  1. The difficulty of explaining why the powerline is being sabotaged. Who is the audience? What is the message? What are you trying to prevent?

  2. The strong likelihood of alienating the public. Dropping a powerline may cut off power to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, and cause them great inconvenience. It is doubtful that they will be sympathetic to either your action or to your goals after experiencing the inconvenience. (In one foolish powerline downing near Santa Cruz, California, in 1990, the many victims had recently been hit with a major earthquake.)

  3. Law enforcement agencies make powerline sabotage a higher priority than other forms of monkeywrenching. Judges, prosecutors, and police agencies are likely to react severely to something that has the potential of inconveniencing so many people, and that strikes at the heart of the industrial infrastructure.

  4. High-voltage powerlines are extremely dangerous and monkeywrenchers could be easily killed trying to sabotage them.

Unless you are prepared to take on these problems, and there is no better alternative, leave powerlines alone. Powerlines having any connection to nuclear power plants have the above problems in spades. Doing anything to such a line will bring the entire weight of the Department of Justice down on your head. (The successful minor ecotage of a powerline connected to the Palo Verde Nuke Plant in Arizona in 1986 triggered the Justice Department’s infamous operation against Arizona Earth First!, even though there was no connection between the 1986 incident and Earth First!.)

Ecotage directed at remote powerlines servicing only land-destroying operations, like isolated mines, is more justifiable and safe.

However, there have been successful and justifiable ecotage actions against major powerlines. The most successful was in western Minnesota in the mid- to late-1970s, when a group of farmers, the “Bolt Weevils,” continually monkeywrenched a 500 KV powerline under construction. Although that powerline was ultimately built, a dozen other projected powerlines were never built. The following guidelines on monkeywrenching powerlines come from anonymous Bolt Weevil veterans.

Powerlines are highly vulnerable to monkeywrenching from individuals or small groups. The best techniques are: 1) removing bolts from steel towers; 2) if tower bolts are welded to the nuts, cutting steel towers with hacksaws, torches (be careful not to breathe the vapors of galvanized metal — see the “Cutting Torch” section in the Vehicles and Heavy Equipment chapter), or cutting wheels; and 3) shooting out insulators (with a shotgun), and shooting the electrical conductor itself (a high-powered rifle is best) which frays it and reduces its ability to transmit electricity. Chain saws, or crosscut saws where noise is a problem, are appropriate for the large wooden towers. Techniques that connect the conductors directly to each other (cable lifted by balloons or shot by harpoon guns) are also effective, but more dangerous to ecoteurs. Used creatively, these techniques can completely baffle the opposition.

  • Most powerline towers are attached to a concrete base(s) by large bolts and nuts (with or without the addition of guy wires). (See illustration.) Check the size of the nuts, get a socket set for that size nut, a cheater pipe for better torque, and remove the nuts. You may also want to tap out the bolts with a hammer. Wind will do the rest after you are safely away from the area.

  • The more vulnerable towers are those spanning a canyon, at corners, on long spans, going up or down mountains — anywhere there is added stress or powerful wind. The “domino effect” can be achieved by monkeywrenching a series of towers leading up to a corner, or an otherwise stressed tower, and then monkeywrenching the stressed tower. Do not expect to monkeywrench a stressed tower and then allow the wind to finish the job for you after you are safely away from the area — it will probably come down in your presence. Be prepared.

  • If the nuts are welded to the bolts to prevent removal, use a hacksaw to cut through the bolts or even through the supports. This is more difficult, but a night’s work can still prepare a good number of towers for toppling in the next storm.

  • A cutting torch can also be used for cutting through tower supports (see “Cutting Torch” section in the Vehicles and Heavy Equipment chapter). Keep in mind that use of a cutting torch may result in additional arson charges. This happened in the Arizona case.

  • Another effective method, where noise is not much of a problem, is to shoot out the insulators holding the power cables themselves. A twelve-gauge shotgun loaded with double-ought shot is the best tool. Walk under the line until you are directly beneath the insulators on a tower. (See Illustration.) With your back to the wind, take two large steps backwards, aim at the insulators, and commence firing. Be prepared to dodge large chunks of falling glass. Large powerlines are suspended from strings of 20 or more insulators. Breaking 70 to 90 percent of them in one string is usually enough to ground out the conductor. This may take several rounds (the record is two), and will cause bright sparks. A team of three shotgunners, each taking a string of insulators for one conductor or conductor bundle, is best for a typical AC line. The lines themselves seldom are shot through and thus fall, but be alert for this possibility. Keep in mind that the use of firearms will result in additional charges if you are caught.

  • When insulators are shot out, the line quits carrying power and has to be shut down until the point of disruption is found and repaired. A helicopter may have to fly several hundred miles of powerline to find where it has been monkeywrenched. Monkeywrenching at a number of locations on the same night compounds the utility company’s problems.

  • Because of the noise from the use of shotguns, extreme security mea-sures are necessary and several escape routes should be planned. Furthermore, the use of firearms makes this a potentially dangerous activity. Do not leave any empty shotgun shells at the scene, since they can be positively traced to the gun that fired them.

  • Smaller powerlines are vulnerable to having their insulators shot out by a .22 rifle from a car driving along backroads or a hiker. (“Powerline? What powerline? I’m just hunting rabbits.”) This is an effective way to discourage power companies from spraying rights-of-way with toxic herbicides if you let the power company know that the damage is being done because of herbicide spraying (techniques for safe communication of this sort are in the Security chapter) and that it will stop when they stop poisoning the area.

Field Notes

  • One item in Murphy’s Law states, “When loosening bolts, one of them is bound to be a roller (a bolt that will not simply spin off, but must be wrenched off millimeter by millimeter). It will either be the last bolt or the one most difficult to reach.”

    So, for the soloist, it is wise to carry a cheap 3” C-clamp, which can bought at any hardware store, and a flat box-end wrench. Put the “fixed” head of the C-frame on the outside of the angle iron (the flat side) of the power tower and the floating head of the screw on the inside (sloped face). This gives you a brace to hold the box wrench so you can use both hands on the ratchet. This set-up will sometimes slip, so be careful to avoid skinned knuckles (wear gloves). An off-set wrench will only roll off the nut, adding to your frustrations.

  • Some powerline towers are supported by guy wires. It would be extremely dangerous to cut the guy wires. They under great tension and the resulting snap could easily kill a nearby person. Also, the tower would be quite unstable after the last guy wire is cut — there is no telling where it would fall.

    A safer method is to use a 4 foot long bar on the turnbuckle connecting the guy wire to ground and just unscrew the sucker most of the way. Let the wind do the rest — do not unscrew it all the way or you will be in the same danger as from cutting the wire.

  • Powerlines are generally patrolled at least once a week at irregular times.

  • Any work near powerlines or other sources of electricity must be done with extreme caution. The high voltage will kill you if you are careless. If you have the opportunity, watch a power company crew doing “Hot Stick” work. If you must work around live wires, use proper equipment.

  • According to a recent report from UPI, utility companies are warning the public that small, metallic balloons, such as those sold for birthday parties and Valentine’s Day, have been implicated in several recent power failures. “In the past couple of years these metallic balloons have come up from nowhere and have escalated into a major source of power outages,” said Harry Arnott, a spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric, a major California utility.

    The Mylar balloons have a 1000th-of-an-inch coating of aluminum, which is an excellent conductor of electricity. When a stray balloon gets caught between two powerlines, it can cause electricity to arc between the lines, melting the lines and sometimes blowing up transformers and causing live wires to fall to the ground.

    In 1987 PG & E blamed balloons for 140 power outages, while Southern California Edison reported 229 balloon-caused outages. An outage on Valentine’s Day in 1986 caused by a silvery heart balloon affected 20,000 customers. A balloon-caused outage in Antioch, California, in August 1987 affected 2750 customers and fried wires in microwaves, VCRs, and TV sets. The problem caused by holiday balloons has only been recognized recently, because the balloons usually disintegrate when they hit power lines, leaving no trace.

    Warning: these balloons, as well as other plastic items, have been implicated in the deaths of marine animals, such as turtles and whales, who mistakenly ingest them. For that reason, their use in monkeywrenching is strongly discouraged. Even though they are effective weapons against powerlines, their danger to biodiversity is even greater. Do not use them, especially not near the ocean.

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