CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Statewide, hundreds of miles of electric lines have been brought down by thieves intent on scavenging the copper inside. Officials expect two or three people every year will lose their lives in the attempt.
The latest victim was 22-year-old Oak Hill resident Dalton Newhouse, who authorities believe touched a live wire this week while trying to steal copper in the remote area near Babcock State Park in Thurmond.
Phil Moye, spokesman for Appalachian Power, said, "They want to get them down on the ground in some fashion. We've had people cut trees to bring them down, shoot them, actually climb poles and cut them down trying to get access to the wire."
Moye said copper theft began to spike in 2006, and since then the activity of stripping it from power lines has killed a few people each year.
"It may be the most dangerous form of theft someone can do," Moye said. "You can never tell by looking at a line whether it is energized or not. We constantly tell people to stay away from them."
Fayette County Sheriff Steve Kessler says Newhouse was killed instantly when he picked up the power line.
"It's so tragic for the individual," Moye said. "And in most cases there's an outage associated with it."
Moye said the incident in the Thurmond area knocked out electricity to 50 customers served by the Claremont sub-station. The line involved was a higher voltage transmission line.
"Copper is a material of value that can be sold as scrap," Moye said. "The lines often run through very rural areas where people wouldn't see that activity."
Kessler said Newhouse and an accomplice planned to strip the line of its copper wiring to later sell as scrap metal. Media outlets reported Thursday that the victim's accomplice was charged with an attempt to commit a felony, conspiracy to commit a felony and disruption of a public utility.
Two thieves were electrocuted in Boone County several years ago trying to steal copper at a sub-station.
"Most people would not even consider going into a sub-station," Moye said. "You don't do it accidentally. You have to cut through a fence with bolt cutters, and you have to have theft in mind when you go in there.
"If they had been successful, the copper was only worth about $300," Moye said. "So for that, two people lost their lives."
"Our own employees have a healthy respect for electricity," he said. "It's hard to comprehend the state of mind, or the desperation, of someone who does this."
Making repairs is expensive, time consuming and inconvenient for customers who lose power.
"They are replacing a line that otherwise would have remained in service for another 20 or 30 years," Moye said.
Appalachian Power tries to deter such theft by educating the public about the dangers and pressing for prosecution when thieves are caught. The utility also offers rewards for information about theft.
"There are a number of things we are doing to discourage it and stop it," he said. "But the activity persists."
Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at cher...@dailymail.com or 304-348-4832
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