Jeremy Gaston
| Editor

The sporadic theft of metal to be sold as scrap has increased from isolated incidents to a rash of thefts, hitting Osage County’s rural electrical companies the hardest.

The scores range from copper piping in abandoned homes to ground rods at power stations, but the most recent round of thefts have been concentrated on ground wires attached to utility poles.

“It’s been going on since the price of copper went up,” said Dan O’Brien, general manager of Kaw Valley Electric Cooperative. “We’re getting hit, especially around the Burlingame area.”

Lyon-Coffey Electric Cooperative, Inc., has seen theft of copper grounds on almost 200 of their poles between Osage and Wabaunsee counties.
“As of Monday, we’ve repaired 195 pole locations,” said Mark Doebele, line superintendent at LCEC. “It’s really escalated.”

Doebele estimated the material loss at around $4,500, with another $10,000 in labor.

“Last week, we had almost three-fourth of our crews out there working on this at some time during the week,” he said. “Every day when we drive down the roads we’re looking at our lines. If we notice something like this we usually investigate a little further.”

LCEC first noticed the grounds missing on poles Nov. 1. Investigation has turned up poles north, west and south of Osage City all the way to Admire.

“We’re clear up by Eskridge and finding them at Melvern Lake,” Doebele said, noting that the thefts appear to have happened recently. “We’re not very far behind them in finding these things. You can still see footprints and tire tracks. You know it hasn’t been too long.”

The catalyst has been the steady rise of copper, which currently trades for almost $4 pound. Overseas demand, particularly from China, has kept the demand high as the price of many metals fell.

The value of removing the ground wire from a single pole theft, however, ranks lower, with each wire only weighing a couple pounds and scrap prices for copper beginning at just $2 per pound.

The replacement value and degradation of the system grossly outweigh the rewards.

“When those grounds are removed, it exposes failures in the system,” O’Brien said. “Your reduce protection on the system.”

Both companies operate a multi-grounded system, where every pole is grounded.

“Keeps the system balanced, and our voltage levels balanced,” Doebele said. “It works out better for us to have a grounded system.”

The grounds help handle lightning and other power surges. They also carry small voltage down the line. That voltage increases as more lines are removed.

“Current takes the path of least resistance, but it’s taking all the paths,” Doebele said. “When you remove them, you’re losing paths. There’s a risk there, and there’s been lots of cases in the past two years of people dying.”

The wire coating is burned off, leaving pieces of scrap that are hard to identify.

Osage County Sheriff Laurie Dunn had a pile of wire on her desk when called Tuesday by The Herald-Chronicle. It had been found in possession of an individual this summer.

“We’re investigating it and following any leads,” Dunn said. “We haven’t had anything significant.”

Independently, LCEC has inspected purchased copper that matched the style and manufacturing used by the company.

“We have seen scrap there that could have been ours,” Doebele said. “We have certain connectors that a lot of the local companies do not use. They appeared to have come off poles that were ours at one time. It’s one of those things that’s really hard to prove. You almost have to catch them red-handed.”

LCEC has begun contacting its customers, encouraging them to report any suspicious activity. Dunn echoed the statement.

“If anyone sees anyone suspicious at these locations, or parked along county roads late at night, they should call us,” Dunn said. “We’ll come out there and check it out. It could be someone broke down, or it could be the person taking the copper.”

Companies have gone a step further in preventing theft, installing less valuable conductors in place of lines that have been removed.

“We replacing them with copper-coated steel, which isn’t worth anything,” O’Brien said. “The solid value isn’t worth anything.”

Dunn said she believes the thefts are the work of a small group making repeated thefts in different areas. She encourages anyone with information to call Osage County Crimestoppers at (800) OSCRIME, or the sheriff’s office at (785) 828-3121. A reward of up to $1,000 is available.

“That reward would be nice at Christmas time,” Dunn said.

Copper thefts in northeast Kansas

• On Oct. 27, Crimestoppers in Topeka reported a water pumping station in Topeka was stripped of its copper, causing more than $200,000 damage to the building.

• On Oct. 11, The Kansas City Star reported theft has been an ongoing issue in abandoned houses in Kansas City, where piping is stolen, devaluing the houses. Prosecution is made more difficult when houses are owned by out of state banks. The Star reported an individual who had been arrested 12 times, but couldn’t be prosecuted due to lack of cooperation of the home owners.