by Jim Wolfe, IAMU Electric Services Coordinator
Copper theft continues to be a problem across the nation. There are no exceptions to where a thief will strike next. Homes, businesses, and utilities are vulnerable to thieves who have as it appears nothing to lose by taking major risks for a free payday. This issue is hitting the news again and continues to hit consumers in the pocketbook.
New York City has seen the effects of this in their mass transit system. Since 2013 there have been nearly 100 copper heists from major subway and train lines. In May, thieves stole more than 500 feet of copper cable in 12 different locations along 2 of their subway routes. This caused a huge disruption in the subway system and left tens of thousands of passengers stranded during their morning commute. The culprits also damaged tracks and rail equipment. Another transit authority in New York State reported that last December a theft of copper left 40 trains stranded after signal cables were stolen from a rail station. Amtrak has transitioned to a copper coated cable that has limited value when scrapped, but admits that theft still costs them at least $100,000 per year. This all ends up costing transit companies millions per year and drives up the cost of fares that the law abiding public must pay.
Home burglaries have also been on the rise. Unoccupied properties are at the greatest risk. Properties in foreclosure are targeted due to the fact that the banks that own the properties may not be located near the area and cannot look over the property. As soon as it becomes evident that the property is no longer being taken care of, thieves move in and start removing plumbing and wire. Copper lawn décor is another easy score. Utility property is very vulnerable due to the fact that it is also unattended.
Iowa is no exception to the problem. Numerous thefts have occurred and have affected electric reliability. Thieves continue to steal grounds from distribution poles, transformers, and substation equipment. One theft in a North Central Iowa substation 2 years ago resulted in the loss of power to 900 customers and damages in the amount of $42,000 to customer and utility equipment. This also raises a huge safety concern for individuals that service and maintain electrical systems and the public that may come in contact with an energized piece of equipment.
MidAmerican Energy has recently begun to paint their copper grounds inside of their substations and on the perimeter fence grounding cables (see photo). They have contacted law enforcement in these areas and notified all recyclers of this campaign. In the two areas where this was done, they have not had a theft occur since this practice was started.
In October 2013, Iowa utilities teamed up with Crime Stoppers to combat this problem. A hotline was created for individuals to report this type of crime. Once Crime Stoppers receive a tip, local law enforcement is contacted to investigate the possible crime. If the perpetrators are caught, the tipster can be eligible for a reward. IAMU, Alliant Energy, Iowa Association of Electric Coops, and MidAmerican Energy have all been active in supporting this program. We all want employees of these entities to be as safe as possible and are also focused on the well-being of the customers that they serve. Utilities strive to keep their rates as low as possible and provide their customers with reliable service. Educate your customers about the benefits of keeping a watchful eye on utility equipment and to report any suspicious activity right away. Even if they report something that isn’t a crime, at least you know that they are watching. IAMU has materials available such as posters and table top brochures that explain the Crime Stoppers program and list the number to report a crime. Please contact us if you would like materials to promote this program. Have a safe July and keep your eyes on your utility.