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Illinois Country Living

Ken Macken
Ken Macken, Manager of Safety and Loss Control, AIEC

Safety & Health:

Stealing Copper Not Worth a Death Sentence
Prices are up 1,150 percent tempting thieves and costing lives

I recently read about a homeless man on the hunt for copper and aluminum. He targeted construction sites and storage yards where he would spend hours gutting equipment that was left out in the open. In two reported incidents, this man caused more than $10,000 worth of damage to two industrial type air compressors to net just $20 worth of copper.

This man is an example of the lengths some people will go to get their hands on certain metals, particularly copper.

It’s no secret that copper prices have risen dramatically over the past few years, which has caused an increase in copper theft. In fact, it has increased 1,150 percent from 2005 to 2006 and continues to rise. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, copper theft has become a $1 billion problem. They report that in 2006, 15 states reported at least one or more fatalities with Nevada reporting a record 43 break-ins resulting in injuries at substations across the state.

While many incidents have proven to be by small-time thieves, other groups are stealing larger, more profitable payloads of copper. A larger utility provider lost more than 2,000 feet of cable in a heist last year. The group of thieves cut the wire right off the utility poles and hauled it away, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage.

The lure of copper is very enticing as it’s a metal that is 100 percent recyclable. It’s easy to recycle and is relatively plentiful. Unfortunately, it is also reasonably accessible, according to Ken Geremia, Manager of Communications for the Copper Development Association, an arm of the U.S. copper, brass and bronze industry. The rise in copper prices is due primarily to increasing demand from China, the biggest purchaser of copper scrap.

Along with the obvious risk that copper theft poses for our electrical cooperatives, stealing anything from utility lines, poles or out of substations is a direct threat to life.

Recently, police in Kentucky say a 24-year-old man died while trying to steal copper from a cooperative power line. The authorities report that the victim was standing on a ladder when he made contact with an energized part of the system and was electrocuted.

There are so many other situations and details to deal with when working with an electrical distribution system; one would rather not have to deal with an issue like copper theft that could actually lead to injury or even death of those involved. It is, however, a reality. Copper theft is being experienced all around the country and our electrical cooperatives have been victimized as well.

What can we do to help curb this action? Fortunately, most cooperatives have begun practices to help thwart copper theft. Here are a few other suggestions to keep in mind:

• If you notice anything unusual with your local electric distribution system, including open sub-station gates, open equipment doors or lids without the obvious presence of a worker around, hanging wire, etc., call your local cooperative with information and locations. Don’t try and handle on your own.

• If you see anyone around your electrical utility equipment that’s not an employee of your co-op, call your co-op immediately.

• Never enter or touch equipment inside a substation. Stay away from powerlines or anything touching a powerline, especially things that don't look like they belong or have been tampered with.

• Help spread the word about the deadly consequences that can result from trying to steal copper.

As always, if you have any questions feel free to call your local electric cooperative!

For More Information:

Ken Macken is Manager of Safety and Loss Control for the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives, 217-241-7933.



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Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives

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