State Warns Copper Thieves on Risks

Jul 11, 2011

FRANKFORT – The electrocution of a man who allegedly was attempting to steal copper wire from an electric substation highlights just how dangerous this illegal activity can be, the Kentucky Public Service Commission said Monday. A 22-year-old man was killed early Thursday at an electric substation in McCreary County. According to news reports, the man had taken copper from a Kentucky Utilities Co. substation and was attempting to do the same at a nearby East Kentucky Power Cooperative facility when he was killed.

Although the number of fatal incidents has declined in recent years, copper theft remains a problem for electric and telephone companies across Kentucky, with regular reports of thefts and resulting service disruptions.

“This crime poses a threat to more than just the perpetrators,” PSC Chairman David Armstrong said. “It endangers utility employees and members of the public as well.”

In a number of cases, theft or damage to telecommunication lines has created lengthy outages in phone service, including 911 emergency service, Armstrong said.

Copper theft began increasing with rising prices for the metal about five years ago. In 2006 and 2007, at least six electrocutions in Kentucky were the result of copper theft.

Thefts declined in 2008 when the price of copper fell dramatically, but the problem has returned as the price of copper has rebounded in the last two years. The price is now higher than it was in 2006.

Plumbing and wiring in vacant buildings, coils in air conditioning units and telecommunication lines also have been targeted by copper thieves. But, as the incident last week demonstrates, thefts from electric facilities continue.

“Electric facilities are very dangerous places for anyone without proper training or equipment,” Armstrong said. “It is not worth risking your life for a few dollars worth of copper.”

Furthermore, finding a buyer for stolen copper is becoming increasingly difficult, Armstrong said. In recent years, Kentucky has passed laws designed to make it harder to sell stolen scrap metals, and most reputable metal recyclers will not purchase material they think might be stolen, he said.

Copper theft creates a number of problems for utilities and their customers, including outages and reliability problems. Damage to facilities can pose hazards to repair workers. Repairing and replacing equipment imposes a cost on the utility company.

“There is any number of good reasons not to attempt the theft of copper from electric or telecommunication facilities,” Armstrong said. “But the most important are that it is illegal and it can get you killed.”