Thieves risk electrocution to steal wire

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EUGENE, Ore. -- Metal thieves risked electrocution and possible death to steal wire from five Eugene Water and Electric Board substations since last Friday.

The thefts temporarily made the substations more dangerous to the public and put the electrical system for Eugene at greater risk for power outages, according to Lance Robertson with EWEB.

“If there was a fault or some kind of electrical fault, if someone were around that substation, the electrical charge could go through that person instead of the grounding wire,” Robertson said.

Thieves put themselves in danger, too.

“They are cutting these wires inches from a high voltage lines that would essentially kill them if they came into contact with them," Robertson said. "Somebody is going to get hurt here or killed.”

The thieves did an estimated $10,000 in damage to net wire that fetches $4 to $6 a pound from a metal recycler, Robertson said.

So who's buying the stolen wire?

“Good question," Robertson said. "The grounding wires were actually spray painted green, so if they show up at a recycling facility they should be able to identify them as stolen from EWEB."

In the year and a half since the color-coding system took effect, no metal recycler has reported someone trying to sell EWEB wire, Robertson said.

"They’ve got to be selling this somewhere. It could be there are taking it out of the area," Robertson said. “When a guy rolls up on a bike with 80 pounds of wire strapped around his handlebars, it seems pretty obvious.”

EWEB plans to ask the 2009 Oregon legislature to make it harder for metal thieves by banning cash payments for scrap metal. Instead, recyclers would have to send a check to an address.

Anecdotally, similar legislation in Washington state cut the rate of metal theft, Robertson said, but the legislation failed to pass the 2007 legislature.

"We think this issue has risen to a level where there’s going to be a lot more groups, businesses and others who sign on to this," Robertson said.

EWEB and other members of a task force on metal theft also want the state to consider funding a special investigative unit that could aid local law enforcement with metal theft investigation.

“The sophistication of their knowledge of what’s a hot wire and what isn’t has gotten to a point to where we wonder whether there’s more of an organized crime element to this,” Robertson said. "You’re seeing these things happen in batches like this, To break into an underground vault and know which wires to clip implies some level of knowledge that’s above your typical meth tweaker."