In the last eight weeks, . Copper was stolen from homes and work sites in and . And theft at a First Energy substation in caused 4,000 customers to lose power for most of a recent Wednesday.
As the value of copper increases, so does crime throughout the region, according to local law enforcement officials.
“It’s a problem, but it’s not just a local problem,” said Sgt. Kevin Gasiorowski, who leads the Pittsburgh Police Burglary Squad. The squad is run out of Zone 6, which oversees Brookline and many communities throughout Pittsburgh’s south neighborhoods, and is responsible for handling all burglary cases in the city.
“These thefts are happening all over the state and across the country. They just happen in different ways, depending on the areas they’re in,” he said.
In areas like Brookline, copper is typically stolen from vacant or abandoned homes. In areas where new homes are going up, it‘s stolen from work sites. And in rural areas, it's usually stolen from utility companies, he said.
Last year, Verizon facilities incurred $300,000 worth of damage, and more than 30 incidents were reported in Fayette County alone, said spokesman Lee Gierczynski.
“Our biggest concern is the effect these thefts have on public safety,” he said. Some of the thieves cut between 50 and 600 feet of cable, leaving thousands of customers without telephone service—or a way to call for help—for up to 48 hours.
The utility company’s security team is working closely with state and local law enforcement officials to catch the criminals, sometimes offering financial rewards for information that leads to arrests. To protect its infrastructure and consumers, Verizon is also employing new strategies, which Gierczynski would not disclose in effort to avoid giving potential thieves an advantage.
“Copper thefts are hard to defend because they usually happen in abandoned areas,” Gasiorowski said. “You hope there are nosy neighbors around.”
Verizon has reached out to its customers in affected areas and asked them to report any suspicious activity to police, Gierczynski said.
“People see crime all the time and don’t realize it,” Gasiorowski said.
That’s why Columbia Gas has issued a plea to its customers to let company officials know of any empty residences. Older homes often have gas pipes that are made of copper. “If they are ripped out, it can cause a gas leak and serious safety risk,” said spokesman Mike Marcus.
If customers have vacant homes or are going to be away on vacation, they can have the company turn off their gas, he said.
Thefts aren’t just a risk to residents and utilities, according to Joseph Vallarian, spokesman for Duquesne Light.
“These brazen criminals risk the lives of our employees as well,” he said.
Thieves who break into electric substations risk their own lives by venturing into high voltage. “Grab the wrong thing, and they’re dead in a matter of seconds,” he said. But they could also cause a power surge to customers and harm utility employees.
“If someone takes something and doesn’t injure or kill anyone, or cause an outage, we don’t always know there has been a theft. Our guys go into these damaged substations blind and vulnerable,” he said.
Duquesne Light, like Verizon, has put things in place to prevent thefts and inconveniences to customers. While Vallarian declined to elaborate for security reasons, he said, “For anybody thinking it would be a good idea to steal, I promise you it’s not. It would be very foolish to be messing in our substations.”
A First Energy substation in Cranberry was recently trespassed, leaving 4,000 customers without electricity and costing the company $20,000 in damage, according to spokesman Todd Meyers.
“But the real cost can be to human life,” he said. “That’s not worth any amount of copper.”
A thief or thieves risked lives, when they stole from the Cranberry substation, for less than $100 worth of copper, he said.
“Copper thefts are always an issue for utility companies, but when copper reaches $4 a pound, like it is now, it’s almost an epidemic,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Energy reports that copper thefts cost the country’s infrastructure $1 billion a year.
Locally, about 11 percent of Pittsburgh’s burglaries are copper related, Gasiorowski said. There are about 3,000 burglaries in the city every year, he said.
There haven’t been any recent reports of copper thefts in Dormont, according to interim police Chief Richard Dwyer.
“Vacant homes are primarily where copper thefts occur in this area, and that doesn’t seem to be much of an issue for Dormont. No such incidents have been reported since I started (two weeks ago), and I hope it stays that way,” he said.
Dwyer said he has instructed his officers to keep an eye out for any suspicious activity following a rash of copper thefts in the region.
Gasiorowski said his unit relies on what is essentially an honor system. A city ordinance requires junk yards to report receipt of scrap metals, “but we can’t be at all of these yards monitoring everything that comes in,” he said.
He said the department has a good relationship with the local scrap yards. “Most people try to help us,” he said.
A worker at Three Rivers Scrap Metal declined comment. Calls to Junk Magician and The Junk Men were not returned.
Gasiorowski said police are as concerned about the theft of copper as they are about theft of a television. “Each situation is potentially dangerous,” he said. “We’re not more concerned about one crime or another.
“We’re just going to keep arresting people to let potential criminals know they will be punished, and they will be caught.”