Feb. 23--In the annals of crime there are countless stories of clever thieves taking risks in the pursuit of great riches. Then there are others who risk being toasted to a cinder to pocket a few hundred dollars.
This story is about that kind.
In the Kansas City area, an unknown number of thieves are breaking into electrical substations, which have 161,000 volts of electricity coursing into them, and jerking out the copper wire used to ground the facility and equipment. They're reselling the copper and pocketing roughly a couple of hundred dollars.
But industry officials say there is a definite risk of death or injury to the thieves, along with the risks posed to the crews who have to repair the damage. There is also a risk of outages for utility customers.
The wave of thefts has gotten so bad that Kansas City Power & Light Co. and Aquila Inc. on Wednesday said they were offering up to $5,000 rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of persons responsible for the crimes. In the past two months, the utilities say, 20 of their substations have been vandalized and their copper stolen.
Moreover, Kansas City isn't alone. Electric utilities across the country, especially in the Midwest and Southeast, are finding themselves the targets of thieves who have watched the price of copper triple in the past three years. The risk of electrocution doesn't appear to be much of a deterrent.
"All utilities are on alert for this right now," said Ellen Vancko, a spokeswoman for the North American Electric Reliability Council in Princeton, N.J.
It's unknown how many utilities have been hit by copper thefts, but the impact on utilities is thought to be considerable, going beyond substations.
In Wichita, Westar Energy Inc. has had a problem the past few months with thieves stripping copper wire from 2,500 light poles. The wire was used to ground the poles, and crews have been scrambling to replace what is considered a safety feature, said Karla Olsen, a Westar spokeswoman.
The thefts come as copper prices have risen sharply, in part because of rising demand from rapidly developing countries such as China. Prices have recently been about $2.25 a pound.
In April a pound of the metal was $1.50, and in 2003 it was 75 cents. KCP&L and Aquila say the thieves hitting their substations have taken away roughly 100 pounds of copper from each substation.
In other areas of the country, there are reports of even higher hauls. The Charlotte Observer in an article last week said thieves stole 500 to 600 pounds of copper from each of seven substations owned by a North Carolina electric cooperative.
Stolen copper is typically sold to scrap metal dealers. Mark Hereford, manager of Wabash Iron & Metal Co. in Kansas City, said he was on alert for stolen merchandise. However, he said, determined thieves can make it virtually impossible to know the origin of the metal since they can change its appearance, such as by chopping up copper wire.
Aquila and KCP&L said substations in the southern Kansas City area were being hit the most. Security is being beefed up, and law enforcement agencies, including the Kansas City police, are investigating.
The utilities hope the reward will get people to report suspicious activities at their substations.
Utilities also are concerned about the potential for outages, though neither Aquila nor KCP&L has suffered prolonged disruptions. Some Aquila customers said they had experienced short outages while repairs were made to their substations.
Most of all, the utilities say, they are concerned about safety. A substation is an inherently dangerous place to be, taking about 161,000 volts of electricity and reducing it for delivery to customers. A residential customer, for instance, uses only up to 220 volts.
Chris Kurtz, manager of substations for KCP&L, said the stations' electricity levels are such that just being near anything conducting power could endanger the thieves. Utility repair crews are also at risk, in part because they are working on substations where the damage is not necessarily fully known.
An outage, injury or death is inevitable if the thefts continue, he said, and they have been increasing.
"It's only a matter of time before one of these occurs," he said.
Ken Geremia, a spokesman for the Copper Development Association, said there always had been a few thefts of copper, which is 100 percent recyclable. But when its price rises, copper draws more attention, causing something like what is happening now in Kansas City.
"Thieves are often not smart, and this proves it," he said.
To reach Steve Everly, call (816) 234-4455 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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