By Andy Ostmeyer
PICHER, Okla. — Theft of copper from utilities and other businesses is nothing new, but officials say some brazen thieves took the crime up a notch — and should consider themselves lucky they’re not dead, even if they haven’t been caught yet.
The thieves made off with 3,000 feet of copper wire and some aluminum wire after cutting down numerous utility poles northeast of Picher, causing a temporary power outage for a handful of Empire District Electric Co. customers.
“They were sawed off at ground level with a chain saw,” Empire spokeswoman Amy Bass said of the six poles.
Some of the lines ran to houses that have been vacated in the government buyout of Picher, a former mining town in the middle of a Superfund site that is surrounded by mountains of chat and undermined by lead and zinc mine shafts and drifts. Some of those lines were dead, said Bass, but some were “energized.”
“They are taking monumental risks with their lives,” Bass said.
Besides the threat of electrocution, she said, the thieves could have been injured when the poles fell or by the lines themselves.
“You just don’t know what is going to happen when those poles fall,” she said.
Nine residents were without power for several hours Wednesday. The lines apparently were cut about 7:30 a.m.
“This caused a great inconvenience for some of our customers, but the safety aspect is our No. 1 concern,” said Bass.
The thieves also may have damaged the integrity of safety systems designed to protect both utility crews and customers.
“That puts our workers and the general population at risk,” Bass said.
Bryan Jacobs, executive director of the Coalition Against Copper Theft, based in Washington, D.C., said the group formed to represent utilities, contractors and others that have been victimized by copper thefts.
He said many states, including Missouri and Oklahoma, have taken action on their own, passing metal theft laws, but others, including Kansas, have not.
“We needed something at a federal level,” Jacobs said.
In 2008, scrap copper was bringing $4 per pound, he said. The bottom fell out, and prices dropped to $1.25 per pound by January 2009. Since then the price has rebounded, and in February it pushed above $3 a pound.
Johnny Boyd Jr., president and general manager of Missouri Metal Recycling in Webb City, Mo., said that when prices started rebounding about eight months ago, he sent a letter to local law enforcement agencies alerting them to Web sites that can help catch metal thieves.
He uses a scrap theft alert on the company’s Web site to alert 14 affiliated locations in the Four-State Area.
Beyond that, www.scraptheftalert.com, is a free Web site offered by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. It has more than 1,000 members. The site instantly sends a message, and description and pictures of stolen scrap metal to any ISRI member within 250 miles of the ZIP code where it was registered.
“A legitimate scrap metal dealer, we’re not going to be buying this stuff,” Boyd said, adding that he believes most of the metal stolen in the Four-State Area is not sold locally.
He said his company takes identification and license plate numbers from sellers, and it has cameras to deter thieves. In 2008, Boyd said, the company hired Webb City police officers to work as security guards because it, too, was becoming a victim of metal theft.
“If someone comes in with a couple of hundred pounds and we haven’t seen them before, we turn them away,” Boyd said. “We don’t need that drama.”
Officials with the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Andy Ostmeyer is the metro editor for The Joplin Globe.
Empire District Electric Co. is offering a $10,000 reward for information that leads to a conviction in the copper-theft case at Picher. Officials said they are asking people who might have information about the case to call local law enforcement.
By Andy Ostmeyer
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