Wire thieves creep through Idaho, Washington state

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SPOKANE (AP) — Thieves in northern Idaho and eastern Washington state are still targeting copper wire for the scrap market despite lower metal prices and electrocution risks, power company officials say.

Officials tell The Spokesman-Review that thieves cause higher electricity bills for customers and endanger the public by leaving live wires.

Dan Kolbet, communications manager for Avista Utilities, said thieves have cut down live lines and climbed substation fences to steal equipment that could kill them.

“In the substation, it’s scary dangerous for the folks doing it, because if they cut the wrong wire they’re dead in about that fast,” Kolbet said, snapping his fingers.

Shawn Dolan is the manager of engineering at Kootenai Electric Cooperative, based in Hayden in northern Idaho.

“They’re not getting a lot of money for the damage they’re doing,” he told The Spokesman-Review.

He said the company recently discovered copper grounding wire, worth about $200 on the scrap metal market, missing from about 60 poles in rural areas north and south of Coeur d’Alene. He said it will cost about $10,000 to replace ground wires, with ratepayers paying for the thefts.

He also said the missing grounding wire means line crews don’t have a safety guard to tie into while working on the poles. And if a storm or car crash knocks down a pole, the wires might not de-energize properly. In addition, voltage fluctuations can be caused by improperly grounded power lines that can damage home electronics.

“For 200 bucks, what they’re doing is risking our workers’ safety, their lives. They could kill a lineman,” Dolan said. “They’re also potentially damaging other people’s electrical appliances.”

“That’s what amazes us more than anything,” said Pat Osborn, supply chain supervisor at Inland Power & Light Co., a rural electric co-op serving areas outside Spokane. “You look at minimum wage in Washington, and these guys could work an eight-hour shift and make quite a bit more.”

Jim Schrock of Earthworks Recycling in Spokane said he pays about $2.75 a pound for good copper, down from $3.30 two years ago. Both Idaho and Washington state have laws intended to deter metal thieves.

“We probably kick out six to 10 people a week,” said Schrock. “We basically say don’t come back and tell all your friends not to come in, because they’re acting squirrelly or they’re on a list where they’ve been convicted of crimes, or they’re trying to skirt the metal law.”

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