The Mystery on Short Hill: The Case of the Critical Infrastructure

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Residents of a northern Virginia suburb outside Washington, D.C. are mystified about an AT&T tower project. They’re asking questions, and the carrier has asked local officials to keep private the details of several applications for a mountain top project on Short Hill in Loudoun County.

The Loudoun Times-Mirror reports questions remain three months after the local county board of supervisors voted to overturn a construction permit that would have allowed AT&T to expand what the carrier says is a telephone transmission utility substation. A resident who lives below the mountain says she has seen more construction, lights at night and tree removal in the months following the board overturning the CP than at any time in the last 20 years she has lived there.

On behalf of AT&T, Parsons Environmental and Infrastructure Group, has requested a total of seven applications and permits remain private; Parsons also filed a site plan amendment for the installation of new electrical work, according to the account.

The county’s inquiry for more information through law firm Walsh Colucci Lubeley & Walsh PC was met with the response that plans that would reveal “critical structural components” like security systems. The firm said the applications are exempt from public disclosure because they would jeopardize the safety and security of AT&T’s facility and its occupants ‘in the event of…a threat to public safety.’”                                                      

The Times-Mirror submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all documents related to the applications, including correspondence. The county produced submission comments and a $1,490 building and zoning permit receipt.

A county spokesman said the AT&T facility is considered “critical infrastructure” by the Department of Homeland Security, meaning if certain records were exposed, that could “jeopardize the safety or security of the public utility facility and its occupants in the event of terrorism or other threat to public safety.” The Critical Infrastructure Information Act of 2002 outlines how the Department of Homeland Security assesses, receives, analyzes and integrates law enforcement, intelligence information and information from other federal, state and local agencies and from private sector entities to identify and assess the nature and scope of a terrorist threat to the United States.

AT&T said this summer it intended to build a 3.5 acre, 35-foot-tall telephone transmission utility substation on the mountain top to provide the county with upgraded high-speed internet, entertainment and enhanced wireless broadband services. Many residents have questioned whether the proposed facility was a data center or a government facility.

Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin), represents the district the site is in. He’s trying to set up a meeting with the county’s various departments and AT&T to get more information about the company’s current plans. “We need to be assured that AT&T is following the rules that everybody has to live by up there,” Higgins said. “But do we have the right to know everything that’s going on? I think under national security requirements, probably not.”

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