Idaho, Washington combat rise in metal theft

Avista linemen Mitch Colvin, left, and Bill Shaffer worked with a crew to install a replacement pole in Coeur d’Alene on Tuesday. Included in all replacement poles is a metal guard to deter the theft of copper wiring. (Kathy Plonka)
Avista linemen Mitch Colvin, left, and Bill Shaffer worked with a crew to install a replacement pole in Coeur d’Alene on Tuesday. Included in all replacement poles is a metal guard to deter the theft of copper wiring. (Kathy Plonka)

BOISE – Metal thieves who steal from electrical substations and other utility installations in Idaho now face stiffer penalties, particularly if their pilfering interrupts service.

And if the thieves are injured in the act, utilities now enjoy immunity from legal liability.

It’s part of an overall crackdown on metal theft that also includes new requirements that scrap dealers photograph those who sell them metal and gather other information that authorities could later use to identify them, if necessary.

Avista Corp. sought the new law, saying it’s seen more than 100 thefts in the past three years and losses of about $400,000.

Idaho’s new law took effect this week; Washington also beefed up its existing anti-metal theft laws this year, setting up a new system requiring scrap dealers to be licensed and requiring dealers to keep sales transaction records for five years instead of one.

“It’s happening everywhere,” said Avista communications manager Debbie Simock. “It’s a nationwide issue that utilities across the country are experiencing.”

They’re not alone – farms, construction sites and railroads also are reporting big losses from metal theft. That includes everyone from farmers on the Rathdrum Prairie whose sprinkler equipment has been targeted to Kootenai Electric Cooperative, which last September had to spend $10,000 to replace grounding wires on 60 of its power poles, for which the thieves likely earned only about $200 from the metal. Ratepayers foot the bill.

“It causes damage to the electric system, which impacts reliability,” said Idaho Power spokesman Kevin Winslow. “The costs impact our customers, and it’s also a safety issue.”

Neil Colwell, Idaho lobbyist for Avista, said, “The ag community got behind this bill in a very big way, and so did the telecommunications providers.”

Not only do metal thieves risk electrocution themselves – one died in Minnesota on June 20 while cutting wires at a farm, according to news reports – linemen and maintenance crews for utilities also can be endangered, if grounding wires are removed and they don’t know.

“It just puts the public and employees at risk,” Avista’s Simock said.

Idaho’s law was sponsored by state Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, who said he expects the new felony penalty to be “a major deterrent to people that are taking metal.”

Plus, the new picture-taking requirements, which require either still photos or video recordings, should give thieves pause before they try to sell stolen metal to scrap dealers, Colwell said. “If your metal is ill-gotten and you have to stand there, they take a picture of you and the stuff that you’re bringing in to sell, we thought that might be a disincentive.”

Michael Cataldo, manager of Pacific Steel & Recycling in Nampa, Idaho, agreed. “Is this going to curb some of it? It may very well do it,” he said, “especially when people know they’re being videoed.”

Idaho’s new law strengthens its 2009 law, which already requires scrap dealers to record a metal seller’s license plate number, name and address and take a photocopy of their driver’s license.

Washington’s law is an expansion of the state’s 2007 law; in addition to the scrap dealer licensing and transaction record-keeping provisions, it sets new gross misdemeanor penalties for providing false information when selling metal. The bill also included provisions for a new statewide “do-not-buy” list of stolen metal and a law enforcement grant program, but those two items weren’t funded in the state budget for the upcoming year; backers hope to get them funded next year.

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