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Metal thieves ‘playing roulette’

Wed., June 7, 2006

Metal thieves are stealing copper and aluminum wiring from power poles and transformers, risking electrocution for a few quick bucks.

Avista Corp. equipment has been targeted on several occasions in the Deer Park area, including once last August when a fortunate thief with at least some electrical knowledge used a cable as a ground and then pulled down 300 feet of copper power line.

The theft caused a three-hour power outage for about half the town north of Spokane.

Avista hopes luck doesn’t run out during one of these bold capers.

“They’re playing roulette,” said company spokeswoman Debbie Simock.

Though the lines stolen were neutral, they could have easily been charged with enough voltage to kill a thief.

The financial loss to the Spokane utility has been light — about $7,000 to $10,000, including labor and materials to replace the stolen lines.

With copper, aluminum and other metal fetching record or near-record prices, thieves have become emboldened.

In Ohio, thieves made off with aluminum bleachers worth $4,000. Across the country, highway guardrails and street-light poles have been stolen, along with power cables for trolley cars and copper from the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor.

The trend of stealing copper and aluminum may continue until prices fall to the point where the reward isn’t worth the risk. So far, at least five people have been killed stealing electrical equipment.

Robin Adams, a Seattle metals analyst with CRU Strategies, said global demand for metal is outpacing supply, notably in China.

Steve Plewman, gas and electric design manager for Avista, said somebody recently pried open a high-voltage transformer box to strip it of copper coils. Someone else took more power lines strung between poles along U.S. Highway 395.

Inland Power & Light hasn’t escaped the thefts. Thieves cut through a fence and carted off wiring as well as tools, said Rick Campos, Inland’s superintendent. So far, no one has risked stealing live wire.

John McClain, regional operations engineer for Avista, said the company made theft reports with authorities and are asking people to keep watch for anything unusual. Most people legitimately working on power lines are clearly identifiable as company employees.

McClain said scrap metal dealers have been called about the thefts.

Chuck Carr, a vice president of the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries, said his members are hiring security to curb thefts, too, as thieves steal from one scrap yard to attempt to sell their loot to another.

Spokesman-Review reporter John Stucke and the Associated Press contributed to this report


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