One year ago this month, I joined law enforcement officials and electric cooperative leaders from across the state to unveil a new initiative to combat copper theft.
As television cameras rolled and reporters scribbled in their notepads, we announced a partnership with Crime Stoppers of South Carolina, a nonprofit organization that offers $1,000 cash rewards for tips that solve active crimes. We also outlined for the media the problems copper theft creates for all residents of the Palmetto State.
Collectively, electric cooperatives in South Carolina have spent more than $1 million on copper theft-related incidents since the start of 2011. According to a 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Energy, copper theft costs American utilities $300 million a year. Those costs are ultimately passed on to every consumer of electricity.
There is a steep human cost to this crime as well. When thieves steal copper wire from utility poles, meters and electrical substations, they are putting themselves at risk of serious injury and death—all for a few dollars of scrap metal. At that press conference, we decided not to release the crime scene photos of a July 2011 attempt to steal copper from a substation in Cowpens. A 41-year-old man was electrocuted in the attempt and the images were just too graphic. It’s unbelievable what the impact of 7,200 or 14,400 volts will do to a human body. People lose legs, feet and hands. The bodies are often unrecognizable.
“Even someone who manages to get away with only $100 worth of copper, he or she could cause thousands of dollars in damage to co-op equipment,” he says. Copper theft also puts co-op employees at risk of injury, and it disrupts power to consumers, notes Maurice Martin, a program manager specializing in generation and transmission issues for the Cooperative Research Network.
“Thieves, for their part, stand an incredible risk for burns, electrocution or even death, and when they tamper with equipment, they leave behind safety hazards for co-op employees who make repairs.”
The number of copper theft incidents in South Carolina appears to be on the decline, thanks to lower copper prices, tough state laws regulating the scrap metal industry and your tips to Crime Stoppers.
With the support of your electric cooperative, the S.C. Sheriffs Association and the scrap metal recyclers industry, the state legislature has enacted what may be one of the toughest copper theft laws in the United States. It wisely combines tough (but fair) penalties on those who steal, with regulation and record-keeping requirements for those who recycle metals. Key highlights of this law include penalties that are based on the damage done by thieves and strict new permit and documentation requirements for anyone who buys and sells scrap metals.
Your tips have helped, too. Since we rolled out our public awareness campaign last fall, Crime Stoppers has received 177 tips on copper theft and solved eight cases, according to Capt. Chris Cowan of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. The tipsters all remain anonymous, and in the cases with successful prosecutions, they walked away $1,000 richer for doing their civic duty.
We may not eliminate the crime of copper theft, but the experience of the past year clearly demonstrates that we can keep the pressure on thieves with continued vigilance. For co-op members, that means keeping an eye on the utility infrastructure that powers our communities and reporting any suspicious activity to Crime Stoppers, law enforcement and your local electric cooperative.
To report copper theft, contact Crime Stoppers at 1-888-CRIMESC or sccrimestoppers.com.
All tips are anonymous, and your information may make you eligible for a $1,000 reward if it leads to a successful criminal prosecution.