WINNSBORO — Copper thieves have a new method for stealing in Winnsboro.
William Medlin, electric utility director with the Town Of Winnsboro, said the thieves are playing a risky game with electric current by stealing the copper groundwires from utility poles. In at least one instance, wire was connected to a four wheeler so more of it could be pulled off the line than just off the pole.
Medlin said this problem is ongoing and that his crews are having a hard time replacing all of the wire being stolen because it is being stolen at such a fast rate.
“The wire stolen is usually about 8 to 10 feet and it can cost up to $40 to replace the wire after each instance of theft,” Medlin said.
He estimates that at the current rate of theft, about 2,000 poles lack ground wires. Typically when one pole is robbed, the thieves continue along that road until they clear off all the ground wires. Though isolated areas in the county often are hit, there have been a number of robberies in the town limits, with Medlin saying how Washington Street was one recent target of the thieves.
If people sees suspicious activity near a power pole, they are asked to contact Winnsboro Department of Public Safety at 635-4511 or to call the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office at 635-4141.
But the crime is not unique to Fairfield County or Winnsboro. This is a nationwide occurrence. As such, South Carolina’s electric cooperatives have stepped up with a public awareness campaign against copper theft from utilities.
“Copper thieves are costing our state’s cooperatives, and more importantly our members, hundreds of thousands of dollars every year,” said Bill Hart, CEO of Fairfield Electric Cooperative in Blythewood. “Too often, a thief steals less than $100 worth of wire, but we shoulder the burden of repairing the damage that typically costs thousands.”
Since the beginning of 2011, incidents of copper theft have collectively cost the state’s cooperatives nearly $1 million. Beyond the financial burden incurred, theft of utility copper also poses significant risks for would-be thieves and cooperative employees.
“We believe this is a significant public safety issue,” said State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel. “Stealing copper from an electric substation is extremely dangerous. It’s a decision that can get you killed. We’ve seen it happen.”
In 2011, more than 25 people nationwide were killed attempting to steal copper from electric utilities. Of particular concern to cooperatives is the safety of their employees and the general public. Unknowingly coming into contact with equipment that’s been damaged by metal thieves can cause serious injury.
“We also worry about the effects these acts can have on the integrity of our infrastructure,” said Russ Dantzler, vice president of engineering and operations at Mid-Carolina Electric Cooperative in Lexington. “These thefts can cause outages that knock out power to traffic signals, and can jeopardize the well-being of customers who rely on power for life-support systems like oxygen.”
The cooperatives encourage anyone with knowledge of copper theft to contact Crime Stoppers at 1-888-CRIMESC, or report online at www.sccrimestoppers.com. Tips to Crime Stoppers that lead to an arrest could result in a cash reward of up to $1,000.