Thieves Risk Their Lives, Others With Dangerous Heists

By Beacon Staff

Montana has some new copper barons, but they may not be around for very long.

Thieves are risking their lives to steal copper; spurred by the rising value of the metal, they’re taking it out of everything from phone lines to air conditioners to electrical substations. And while the theft hurts businesses and individuals at the bottom line, it’s the thieves who many say are in for a shock.

“It’s hard to believe people are willing to put their lives at risk for a little bit of copper,” Wendy Ostrom Price, communications director for Flathead Electric Cooperative, said. “Copper may be a hot commodity right now, but the money is definitely not worth the risk.”

At least 11 people nationwide have been electrocuted stealing copper in recent years. The metal fetches as much as $3.50 a pound, and some commodity Web sites report the price has grown six-fold since 2001. Kalispell’s Pacific Steel and Recycling was offering $1.70 per pound for copper last week.

What has been a rising trend of copper thefts made its way to Flathead County the week of Oct. 15. Thefts were reported at five of the valley’s substations ¬– four owned by FEC and one by the Bonneville Power Association – in two days. Lincoln County and Park County also reported similar thefts that week. “This is the first time we know of that anybody has broken into a substation here to steal copper,” Flathead County Sheriff’s Detective Kirby Adams said.

An electrical substation decreases voltage in order for it to go to residences. A familiar sight, the foreboding transformers, danger signs and barbed wire are usually enough to keep out all troublemakers besides squirrels, birds and cats. But, in each of last week’s thefts, thieves cut holes in the chain link fences surrounding the substations, and then cut the seven-thread cords of copper used as grounding wire for the station’s transformers. Wire was also stolen from a building on one site. The substations hit run anywhere from 12,000 volts to 230,000 volts of electricity.

“There are a ton of variables with electricity; all it takes is grabbing both ends or touching the transformer and that’s it, it will kill you,” said Royal Osterday, a FEC substation journeyman. “I’ve worked here 20 years and I can tell you what these people are doing, it’s just flat not safe.”

And thieves aren’t the only ones at risk. Because the substations aren’t visited daily, it’s possible the theft can go temporarily unnoticed, leaving an opening into the substation and the system ungrounded in the case of a disturbance. Price said FEC fixes the fences and replaces the copper wire as soon as the theft is discovered.

Electricity users also incur the costs associated. Price said repairs for the FEC substations had reached felony amounts, while BPA spokesman Doug Johnson said repairs at the one BPA station hit cost $2,500. Johnson said BPA has had more than 20 thefts already this year at a cost of around $180,000. In 2006, 29 thefts cost the company around $185,000.

Local law enforcement and electric companies alert local recyclers when thefts are discovered, and some states have begun requiring identification and delayed payment for copper scraps. Companies have also started making distinctive markings on their copper.

BPA has gone one step further. “We have a toll-free, crime witness program. If somebody can provide information that leads to an arrest and conviction, we’ll pay up to a $25,000 reward.”

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