Copper thieves targeting power lines, IPL says

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. - Independence Power and Light officials say in the last two weeks they've seen a spike in copper thefts of the most dangerous type, with would-be criminals taking down power lines to get to the copper inside.

On Friday morning, a copper thief cut down a live power line at the corner of 9th Street and Ann, knocking out power to homes on the block and leaving a power line dangling precariously over a school bus stop until crews could repair it.

Power and Light officials say such brazen thefts are not only risky for the criminals who attempt them, but also put the public at risk; with live power cables often left lying in the street or hanging off targeted poles.

"They cut these lines down. They don't care what they leave. They leave wires dangling," said Patrick Quinn, head of security for Independence Power and Light. "A curious child comes along and grabs the wire -- its instantaneous. Extreme injury or death."

As scrap metal, copper can sell for as much as $4 per pound.

Stealing copper to sell for scrap is not a new crime in Missouri, but improvements in security at substations and storage facilities, as well as a gradual shift from all-copper to copper-clad steel wires in substations have forced would-be criminals to improvise.

Most thieves who target power lines cut neutral or grounding wires, which normally do not carry electricity. Occasionally, they cut live power lines by mistake or by design. Doing so improperly can electrocute the thief, and leave a dangerous live wire behind.

"You don't really have to touch a live wire," Quinn warned. "If you get in the proximity of it, it can get you."

Theft of copper wiring is widespread, industry officials say. It is a growing problem in Texas, for example, and a Westar energy executive called it an "epidemic" in Wichita, Kan.

Quinn said police have told his company that as many as half of copper thieves in the Kansas City area could be stealing to help fuel a methamphetamine habit.

"They are desperate to get something to sell to enable them to buy their methamphetamine and use the drugs. That, I think, is pushing a lot of it," Quinn said.

Whatever the reasoning, copper wire thefts can be expensive. Quinn recalled one incident several years ago that cost $38,000 to repair. In 2011, Kansas City Power and Light said they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair and replace stolen wires.

Those costs, industry officials say, are all passed on to consumers.

"If its $200,000 taken from Independence Power and Light, its $200,00 taken from the citizens of Independence," said Leon Daggett, Director of Independence Power and Light. 

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