The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

March 27, 2013

Law enforcement warn of the dangers of copper theft

BLOOMFIELD — We tell kids to stay away from power lines. Now somebody better warn the thieves.

In a single year, more than two dozen people were killed in the United States trying to steal the wires off of live electrical poles. Affecting far more people, however, are the outages and increased cost of electric bills.

According to a press release from Southern Iowa Electric Cooperative, copper theft and the damage left behind to the poles and other equipment is an ongoing problem.

Davis County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Josh O’Dell said he’s been told of interruptions to electrical service to an area because someone stole something metallic from a utility pole.

“It would cause a utility interruption, which, I believe is either a Class C or D felony offense,” O’Dell said. “It’s a very serious problem.”

Not just because of utilities, though that’s a big part of the problem. The thieves will steal the copper pipes from a vacant home. In one instance in Davis County, a pipe that went from a full propane tank into a home was stolen — while the tank was turned on.

Wapello County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Don Phillips  said the same thing happened in rural Wapello County. There was no explosion or fire in either case, but it’s dangerous,.

“Because of metal prices, we’ve had a lot of scrap metal thefts,” said Phillips. “People are stealing the wires off the grain bins. In the fall, farmers go out and can’t dry or move the grain. You’d be lucky to get a pound of copper out of a grain bin. But the farmer has to pay hundreds to get it fixed.”

Depending on the condition of the metal, “clean copper” can bring in around $3 a pound, according to one scrap dealer.

O’Dell said in their effort to get a few bucks in scrap metal, thieves do thousands of dollars in damage.

Phillips said it seems like for each dollar the thieves get, homeowners may end up having to pay $100.

Law enforcement officials said that the copper is just pennies when compared to the cost to homeowners or utility companies — and co-op utility customers who help pay for equipment.

“Not only are the thieves risking their life, but the general public and utility workers can be killed when they unknowingly come into contact with damaged equipment resulting from the theft,” according to the Southern Iowa Electric Cooperative

In some counties, like those with rural electric cooperatives, those turning in thieves who damage utilities can get up to $2,000 in reward money.

Because the thefts cause so much damage, including potential outages that can damage commerce or interrupt everyday life, authorities take scrap metal theft seriously, the deputies said.

“We just arrested a guy here a couple days ago,” said Phillips, “who stole an old vehicle out of a farmer’s field and sold it to a scrap dealer. Trespassing and [auto theft].”  

That may help with the other problem.

“We were having an issue at one point,” said O’Dell. “Boxes taken off utility poles, wires cut and stolen.”

Then, a few weeks ago, they arrested a ring of burglars for stealing and selling stolen scrap metal. The thieves had nothing from utility poles. But suddenly, O’Dell said, the number of rural utility power cable thefts “sharply decreased.”

“It’s not worth getting electrocuted for a few dollars, not to mention the damage done,” said Phillips. “For the amount of work they’re doing, to me, it seems like it’d be easier to get a job.”

Theft hotline

The toll-free Southern Iowa Electric Cooperative Theft Reward hotline number is 855-267-7379.

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