Soaring metal prices have been blamed for an increase in thefts of copper and aluminum, primary components of electric distribution lines. Recent thefts of copper wire and equipment from electric utilities have been responsible for power outages, additional maintenance and expenses, diminished service reliability, and, in some cases, serious injury or death.
Copper in wire is appealing to thieves who want to sell the metal for scrap. Burglars will often climb power poles, scale fences and break into buildings to steal it. A 542 percent increase in the price of copper since 2001 has prompted thieves to become bolder and more inventive.
In Oklahoma, members of one electric co-op are facing an estimated $1 million repair bill because copper thieves wrecked a substation for just $100 worth of the metal last year. In New Mexico, a man was found dead beneath a power pole, electrocuted while trying to cut copper wiring from a live transformer. A Texas man lost his life when he cut into a live power line while trying to steal copper. Similar accidents have been reported across the country.
"To a would-be thief, stealing copper may seem like a quick way to make a buck," says Doug Lane, Intercounty Electric Cooperative's Safety and Loss Control Coordinator. "But it's illegal, it's costly, and it's not worth a life. Working with any metal and electricity is a dangerous combination, even for trained employees using proper equipment."
These thefts are costing Intercounty Electric Cooperative thousands of dollars. What many fail to realize is that as a member-owned cooperative it's the membership who pays through rates for these thefts, he said. Intercounty Electric Cooperative has prosecuted copper thefts and will continue to do so, he said.
"Thieves may not understand that they are not only risking their lives by taking copper but they are causing dangerous situations for the public and for line workers," said Lane. "By removing copper ground wires from utility poles it removes the safety features required for working on lines and for diverting lightning on the system. If you see anything suspicious around utility poles or substations report it immediately - you could be saving your home, family and your local lineman from damage and dangerous situations."
Lane urges persons to follow these guidelines to guard against electrical dangers and prevent copper theft.
•Never enter or touch equipment inside a substation; stay away from power lines and anything touching a power line.
•If you notice anything unusual with electric facilities, such as an open substation gate, open equipment or hanging wire, contact your electric co-op immediately.
•If you see anyone around electric substations or electric facilities other than co-op personnel or contractors, call the police.
•Install motion-sensor lights on the outside of your house and business to deter possible thieves.
•Store tools and wire cutters in a secure location, and never leave them out while you are away.
•If you work in construction, do not leave any wires or plumbing unattended or leave loose wire at the job site, especially overnight.
•Help spread the word about the deadly consequences that can result from trying to steal copper or aluminum.
Persons who notice anything unusual, call Intercounty Electric Cooperative immediately at 866-621-3679. If you see anyone other than co-op personnel or contractors around substations or other electric facilities, call the police.