Utilities battle theft of copper
October 2, 2006
Mike Smart was frustrated and angry when thieves knocked out power to about 700 Sierra Pacific Power Co. customers in Verdi and Mogul for several hours.
But in the same breath, Smart, the utility’s executive for regional hub operations at Reno and north Lake Tahoe, worries that thieves stealing power lines for the copper they contain are flirting with death if they mistakenly target an energized line.
Utilities around the nation are seeing an upsurge of theft as copper and aluminum prices stay near record levels. That encourages criminals to steal lines and sell their metal content for scrap.
Most recently, Smart says, thieves knocked down power poles and stole copper wire from an electric line along the Truckee River between Verdi and Truckee.
The 60,000-volt power line currently isn’t in service, but Sierra Pacific plans to run juice through it to serve as a backup to subdivision customers near Truckee.
And some of the smaller distribution lines along the route already are energized.
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Sierra Pacific isn’t alone in battling cable thieves.
“The company has absolutely seen an upsurge in theft of cable, mainly in pursuit of copper to steal from telephone lines,” says Vanessa Smith, a spokeswoman for AT&T.
The telephone company works with local law enforcement agencies to pursue the cases, Smith says.
Additionally, a new federal law passed after the Sept. 11 attacks makes destruction of telephone networks a federal terrorism offense that can be investigated by the FBI.
For its part, Sierra Pacific has offered a $1,500 reward through the Secret Witness Hotline (322-4900) as it continues to work with law enforcement agencies.
Both Sierra Pacific and AT&T say they need help from the public and particularly scrap metal dealers in looking for suspicious loads of utility wire and other commodities.
The danger to thieves and others in the area goes beyond possible electrocution, Smart says.
As thieves have cut about 50 power poles in recent months, lines have fallen onto Union Pacific Railroad tracks and traffic lanes of Interstate 80. Live wires also can spark wildfires.