Copper Theft: A Dangerous Epidemic

Posted by Ashley Little on August 5, 2014

copper_theft_a_dangerous_epidemicThis summer, one Texas co-op is facing $20,000-plus in losses due to the actions of some ingenious thieves. Armed with a homemade device that included standard, consumer-grade limb cutters, more than 85 spans of copper wire were taken from the company’s poles.[1]  Copper theft is a common problem, but one that typically happens at construction sites and involves industrial air-conditioning units and abandoned buildings, not actual utility poles.

However, in 2013, CNN called copper theft an “epidemic” across the U.S.[2], implying no industry is safe. In 2010, the City of Birmingham's Christmas tree was burned to the ground by grinches stealing copper. Why? Price, of course.

While recycling and re-selling aluminum, for example, will earn someone 0.89¢ a pound, copper brings upwards of $3.00 a pound. [3] That tempting payout is clearly enough to entice a large number of undesirables to go to great, and often dangerous, lengths to reap ill-gotten rewards. 

A Hazardous Payday

In 2013, PPL Electric Utilities of Lancaster, PA recorded more than 400 copper ground wire thefts inside city limits alone.[4] One man was badly burned while trying to steal copper wire from utility poles he had initially set on fire in Denton County, TX last year.[5] Finally, a Bentleyville, PA man was arrested for stealing copper ground wire from 80-plus of the small town’s utility poles, nearly every single one in the borough.[6] Sadly, these are just a minuscule amount of the stories out there detailing this dangerous and expensive crime.

Fighting Back

What can the industry do to deter copper theft—and the dangerous situations from outages to injury that can occur as a result? Some companies have increased security around facilities to ward off criminals, but assigning a guard detail to each and every utility pole is impossible. Some companies etch copper cables with serial numbers so they can theorecally be traced if stolen. Still other companies coat cables with a special liquid that leaves a stain visible only via ultraviolet light. Think dye packs used to thwart bank robbers. Finally, some utilities have opted to replace pure copper cables with copper clad wires with a steel core. This newer technology diminishes scrap value and has the added benefit of making the cables difficult to cut and therefore not worth a hurried thief’s time.

Beyond safety measures however, all utility pole owners have one more line of defense, at least in keeping tabs on poles and areas most likely to be targeted. Conducting regular field inventories and tracking poles that have been stolen from in the past can help owners pinpoint trouble areas and take swift action where needed.

The bottom line: copper theft is not just a financial hardship, it is a dangerous temptation and a potentially deadly situation for thieves. Take heed and take precautions, or the “epidemic” may spread to your assets one by one.

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