Thieves are creeping down country roads at night cutting copper wire from power poles to sell on the scrap market, leaving hazards for line crews, headaches for utility managers and higher electricity bills for customers.
The larceny is nothing new, but it persists even after metal prices have dropped this year. The risk some take to steal the highly conductive, recyclable metal is, well, shocking.
“They’re not getting a lot of money for the damage they’re doing,” said Shawn Dolan, manager of engineering at Kootenai Electric Cooperative, based in Hayden.
“It’s just an unbelievable waste,” added Pat Osborn, supply chain supervisor at Inland Power & Light Co., a rural electric co-op serving areas outside Spokane.
Thieves are getting more brazen in stealing metal from utilities, even at the risk of serious injury or death.
Some cut down live lines, others scale substation fences to pilfer equipment that can kill at the touch, said Dan Kolbet, communications manager for Avista Utilities.
“In the substation, it’s scary dangerous for the folks doing it, because if they cut the wrong wire they’re dead in about that fast,” Kolbet said, snapping his fingers.
Kootenai Electric recently discovered copper grounding wire missing from about 60 of its poles in rural areas north and south of Coeur d’Alene. The total amount of copper taken would net only about $200 in the current scrap metal market.
But it will cost the utility around $10,000 to replace the ground wires, Dolan said. And because insurance doesn’t cover the loss, the ratepayers will foot the bill.
Meanwhile, the missing wire – about 7 feet was removed from the bottom of each pole – poses serious problems for the utility and its customers, he said.
Without the complete ground wire in place, line crews lack a safety ground to tie into when working on the poles. Also, if a storm or car wreck brings down a pole, the live wires may not de-energize properly. Further, improperly grounded power lines may cause voltage fluctuations that damage home electronics.
“For 200 bucks, what they’re doing is risking our workers’ safety, their lives. They could kill a lineman,” Dolan said. “They’re also potentially damaging other people’s electrical appliances.”
Avista copes with constant theft in its power system, including removal of the neutral wire that runs below the main electrified lines.
In Deer Park, thieves cut and stole more than 24,000 feet of this wire in July and August alone, leaving dangling ends of live wire within anyone’s reach, Kolbet said. The utility crews in that area have begun scheduling themselves to repair the damage every few days, he said.
“It’s a common occurrence, and it’s not slowing down much,” Kolbet said.
Avista also has seen copper wire stolen from four substations in the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene areas in the past year. The latest incident was last week at a substation near Spokane Falls Community College. A crew inspecting operational problems there the morning of Sept. 5 found that ground wire had been snipped and stolen from several spots in the substation.
“We had to take that substation offline, which caused a power outage for 3,600 customers for about an hour and a half,” Kolbet said.
Repairs took most of a day to complete as power was rerouted to those customers, he said.
The price of scrap copper has fallen but remains fairly strong, said Jim Schrock, owner of Earthworks Recycling in Spokane.
Almost two years ago Schrock was paying $3.30 a pound for large quantities of “bright and shiny” copper, meaning it’s stripped of insulation and shows no oxidization. Today he pays about $2.75 for the same material.
But even at the higher prices, it’s puzzling why thieves go to all the trouble and take the risks they do for relatively modest gains, said Osborn at Inland Power.
“That’s what amazes us more than anything,” he said. “You look at minimum wage in Washington, and these guys could work an eight-hour shift and make quite a bit more.”
Utilities are trying to thwart the thieves. When possible, Avista replaces stolen neutral wire with aluminum stranded wire, which lacks the resale value of copper. And starting late last year, the utility began securing steel plates about 10 feet high over the ground wire running down power poles to shield the copper from thieves.
Inland Power is spending more on monitoring and security systems.
“That’s really one of our challenges. Our system is considered very rural,” Osborn said. “There’s a lot of places that people could be out there stealing stuff, and it would go undetected for months or years in some situations.”
And once it’s stolen, copper wire is difficult to track back to the owner.
“It’s not like when your house is robbed you can call a pawn shop and say, ‘Hey, watch out for my Mickey Mantle baseball,’ ” Kolbet said.
At Earthworks Recycling, one of about a dozen scrap metal buyers in Spokane County, Schrock turns away sellers who raise red flags.
“We probably kick out six to 10 people a week. We basically say don’t come back and tell all your friends not to come in, because they’re acting squirrelly or they’re on a list where they’ve been convicted of crimes, or they’re trying to skirt the metal law.”
That 5-year-old Washington law to deter metal theft requires recyclers to record more information about sellers and to hold payments of more than $30 for 10 days. Drug addicts who steal to feed their habit typically want their cash up front.
A similar 2009 law in Idaho also requires scrap dealers to collect seller information but does not impose a waiting period for payment.
Although no fan of the extra paperwork, Osborn thinks it might be better to extend the waiting period to all scrap metal sales in Washington. That would discourage crooks who split their loot into small piles to sell at multiple recyclers, he said.
Still, the thieves are persistent and may take their hauls to other states with more lenient restrictions, he said.
“The guys that are stealing locally, they’re relentless,” Osborn said. “They’re just out there every day stealing stuff.”