Copper thieves knock out power in Gary

September 2, 2011

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(Flickr/tsmall)
Neighborhoods in Gary, Indiana, have seen copper power lines disappear this week.

Construction sites and home air conditioning units are the usual targets for copper thieves and, over the past few years, the problem’s grown nationally.

Copper is selling for about $4 a pound at scrap yards in Northwest Indiana, so a few dozen pounds could net some chump change. But some thieves, it seems, want more than that, and they’re willing to risk life and limb to grab hundreds of pounds of the metal.

This week alone a thief -- or thieves -- stole more than 2,300 feet of copper wiring from utility poles near downtown Gary. That’s about 600 pounds worth.

The thefts, 16 in all, started Sunday and have continued through Thursday evening, said Nick Meyer, spokesman for Northern Indiana Public Service Company.

He said thieves are climbing 20- to 30-foot utility poles to get at the copper.

“Very, very risky behavior on the part of a few select individuals,” Meyer said. “Individuals are climbing the wooden electric utility poles and actually going to the top of them and actually cutting live electrical lines, which, as you can imagine, is not a smart thing to do.”

Meyer says NIPSCO isn’t just worried about the cost to replace the wiring. He says, sure, it costs the company money in manpower and product, but safety is the main issue.

“To the company, it’s not a large expense. What it comes down to is an issue of customer safety. Some of these instances are happening in neighborhoods. There are families, children in the area,” Meyer said. “It causes more of a concern than just actual monetary dollars.”

The other issue is one of inconvenience to customers, especially on hot-weather days such as Friday, which saw temps spike above 90 degrees in Northwest Indiana.

“It’s not only an inconvenience to those without air conditioning but for seniors living in the area or people relying on medical equipment,” Meyer said.

Meyer said Gary police are investigating the thefts. An alert has also been put out to local scrap yards to look for people coming in soon to cash-in on large quantities of copper.

Meyer said whomever gets caught could be charged with a federal offense. He says cutting live electric lines is against federal law because it disrupts the distribution of electricity across state lines.

Copper thefts have been reported from the East Coast to California, causing millions in repairs and security.

The FBI now considers copper thefts to be a threat to the nation’s critical infrastructure.