It’s illegal, costly and potentially life-threatening.
But that didn’t stop thieves recently from apparently trying to steal copper from separate Southern California Edison facilities — and suffering electrical burn injuries because of their criminal activity that led to one being airlifted to a trauma center and two others being taken to a hospital.
Beyond burns, copper thefts can be deadly, especially when it is cut from live electrical equipment.
“They might not understand the life-threatening danger they’re putting themselves in for less than $3 a pound,” said Alex Benoliel, SCE’s director of Corporate Security. “But, foremost, copper theft involving electrical equipment is a public safety issue, potentially causing harm directly or indirectly when the resulting outages interrupt traffic signals, telephone service or electrical service to customers who rely on medical equipment.”
Additionally, a few hundred dollars of copper stolen from a substation, utility pole or junction box can lead to thousands of dollars in repair costs as well as outages, first because of the theft and then to complete the repair work.
For example, one of the incidents, which involved two men who made contact with energized underground equipment in the Huntington Beach area, initially caused a momentary interruption for 2,300 customers. However, a 4 ½-hour outage followed for a handful of the customers to repair the damage.
In the separate incident in Hesperia, in which the perpetrator broke into a substation and also contacted energized equipment, 16,000 customers lost power briefly but most were restored within 20 minutes.
However, SCE is most concerned with the safety hazards created by copper thefts. For instance, thieves often cut holes in fencing to enter substations, creating a potential hazard for small children, pets or animals that might then enter through the holes.
Another potential hazard for the public as well as utility workers involves ungrounded cable and equipment, resulting from copper thieves often removing the ground wires.
“SCE personnel working in substations can be injured by this ungrounded cable and equipment,” said Robert Torres, an SCE principal manager of public safety. “Ungrounded cable can also lead to stray voltage conditions that can endanger our customers.”
SCE’s Corporate Security works closely with law enforcement to prosecute copper thieves and it is a member of the California Metal Investigators Association, a public/private partnership with law enforcement agencies to combat these crimes. SCE encourages its customers to report immediately to law enforcement any suspicious activity near a substation.
“People need to report suspicious activity if they see it,” said Benoliel. “Because copper thieves expose us all to dangerous conditions.”
----- SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY could include:
• People in or around substations with duffel bags or backpacks.
• Bicycles, mopeds or motorcycles near substations.
• People in or around substations without hard hats and appropriate uniforms.
• Late night and early-morning activity near the substations without a marked SCE vehicle present.
----- TO COMBAT safety hazards created by copper thefts, SCE urges its customers to:
• Never enter a substation — unauthorized entry is a crime as well as stealing materials — because of the high voltages present.
• Never touch a downed or dangling power line — even if it appears not to be live — or anything in contact with it. Call 911 immediately.
• Use extreme caution when traffic signals are out and treat all intersections as four-way stops.
• Have an emergency plan that includes a back-up power source or relocation plans if someone in your home depends on electric-powered, life-sustaining medical equipment.
(Paul Netter is a writer for Energized by Edison.)