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Power outages only part of wire theft problem

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The incident that knocked out electrical service to 2,900 customers in Charleston on Thursday is the latest in a series of copper thefts that have interrupted utility services and even electrocuted thieves.

In the Thursday incident, copper ground wires were stolen at Appalachian Power's Chesterfield Avenue substation. It affected Kanawha City, Loudon Heights and South Hills. The thieves got away.

That hasn't always been the case. As recently as April, a Boone County man was electrocuted when he grabbed a 7,200-volt power line he thought was made of copper. The line was instead a product named Copperweld,

a commercially available compound with a copper surface and a core of less expensive materials. It had very little resale value.

In 2008, a father and son were killed stealing copper from Appalachian Power's Hopkins Fork power substation in Boone County.

Copper theft became a serious problem in 2006, when the price of the metal increased.

Appalachian Power spokesman Phil Moye has said that since 2006, two or three people a year have died while trying to steal copper.

Moye also has said the utility spends about $1 million a year to replace stolen copper wire.

Earlier this year the utility's monthly bill mailings included a warning about the danger of being electrocuted when stealing copper. After power was restored Thursday, affected customers began receiving automated phone calls explaining the recent outage and strongly discouraging copper theft.

"Unfortunately, this outage could have been prevented," the recording says. "It is the result of theft of electrical equipment that helps serve our neighborhood. Stealing copper is dangerous to the public, our employees and the thieves themselves."

The message urges customers to report suspected theft, and vows the company will see that thieves are prosecuted "to the fullest extent of the law."

Appalachian Power began using Copperweld in some areas five years ago. Thieves who take it to a salvage yard for cash "will learn they likely won't get enough money to cover their cost of gasoline to drive there," a company representative said at the time.

The utility has said that copper ground wire like the wire stolen Thursday is one of the most frequently stolen types of company property.

"The wire provides a path to ground for electric faults, protecting equipment, the public and line personnel, so it is particularly dangerous when it is removed," the utility said.

Copper thieves also are bedeviling Frontier Communications Corp., the largest telecommunications provider in the state.

"It's an epidemic," Dana Waldo, Frontier's vice president and general manager for West Virginia, said in February.

Earlier this year the state Legislature passed a law making it illegal for scrap yards and recycling centers to buy certain kinds of scrap metal without proof of lawful possession.

The law took effect in mid-June. A Frontier spokesman said in October that the number of thefts the utility was experiencing had declined but it would take longer to see if that was a trend.

State Farm, the largest insurer of homes in West Virginia, has seen significant increases of claims for copper and other metal thefts over the last few years, said company spokeswoman Amy Preddy.

"State Farm sees many claims coming from older homes with copper pipes, rental dwellings and vacant homes," Preddy said. "Theft often occurs quickly. For example: renters may move out one day, and the copper is gone the next."

Preddy said property that is difficult to access is less attractive to criminals.

"The average burglar will spend no more than four to five minutes trying to break into a residence," so it is important for homeowners to secure windows and doors, she said.

"Well-placed lights and motion-sensor lights eliminate possible hiding spots and can be a low-cost way to help deter potential thieves."

Installing a cage over an outdoor air conditioning unit may deter thieves who target the copper coils, she said.

Also, "education and awareness of the problem of copper theft may help discourage thieves and encourage people to report suspicious behavior," Preddy said.

"Be a good neighbor and keep an eye out for suspicious activity in your neighborhood. Call the police immediately if you see suspicious activity or signs of a break-in."

Preddy noted that taking precautions to reduce damage and theft reduces the number of claims that homeowners file, and that helps keep insurance premiums low.

Prior to Thursday's power outage, the most well-known copper theft in Charleston occurred in June 2010 when the historic Fernbank School bell was stolen from a South Hills display.

Charleston police recovered the bell, which was sawed and hammered into chunks, from scrap dealers. In March 2011 Charles Brett Cook, Jeffrey Phelix and Michael Phillips pleaded guilty to the burglary.

Contact writer George Hohmann at or 304-348-4836.



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