Michelle Martychenko, supervisor of electric operations at Ameren Illinois’ Belleville operating center, and Laverne Etheridge, lineman and electric system coordination foreman, review some of the substation areas where copper thieves have struck in the Belleville operating center’s territory.

Ameren Illinois Battles Copper Theft

July 18, 2013
Utility fights back after its service territory is hit by a rash of robberies.

Copper is disappearing from Ameren Illinois’ substations, off power poles and even from linemen’s locked work trucks. Robbers are then trying to sell Ameren’s copper wiring to local scrap yards.

Linemen typically carry about three to four 25-lb reels of copper in their trucks and lock them in storage compartments. They typically use the copper wiring for jobs such as setting a pole or installing a jumper or pole ground.

Because copper can be worth up to $3 a pound, thieves have stolen this copper and then tried to sell it to local scrap yards. While the robbers may get away with $100 to $200 worth of copper, however, it can cost Ameren Illinois thousands of dollars to make the repair. In addition, it can cause power disruptions and even put linemen at risk because of the removal of grounds at substations or on power poles.

Last year, Ameren Illinois spent $250,000 to purchase and replace stolen copper throughout its service territory, said Richard J. Mark, president and CEO of Ameren Illinois.

“The safety of our employees and customers is our top priority at Ameren Illinois,” Mark says. “This type of theft is placing our coworkers at high risk of injury and could leave our customers in the dark due to an unexpected outage. Thanks to tougher legislation, stealing copper from a utility, in many cases, is a felony, and Ameren Illinois will prosecute to the full extent of the law.”

Copper theft has happened not only at Ameren Illinois, but at electric utilities nationwide. And the problem is not limited to utilities. In addition to stripping copper from transformers, thieves are also taking copper from air conditioners, telecom cable, tornado warning sirens and even railroad tracks.

According to a recent report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, 96% of the more than 25,000 insurance claims filed for stolen metals were for copper theft.

While Ohio tops the list of states with metal theft insurance claims, Illinois is ranked in fifth place behind Texas, Georgia and California. In Ameren Illinois’ service territory, the utility has experienced a rash of copper thefts.

Most recently, culprits managed to make their way onto the property of the Belleville, Illinois, operating center. Inside, they actually loaded up an Ameren Illinois work truck with spools of copper wiring and the linemen’s tools. They then tried to drive the truck through the fence surrounding the operating center. Rain, however, put a stop to their plans. After the truck’s wheels got stuck in the mud, the robbers fled on foot and escaped before police arrived on the scene.

Dealing with Copper Theft

To prevent future incidents, Ameren Illinois is protecting its substations and operating centers with fences, video cameras and motion sensors. Despite these preventive measures, however, robbers are still finding their way into substations to remove the copper wiring, which grounds the towers used to step down the high-line voltage to a distribution voltage. In turn, this presents a significant safety hazard to linemen because the equipment then becomes energized. If the linemen come in contact with the tower, they have a high risk of being electrocuted.

For that reason, linemen are always taught that when they go into a substation, they need to look to see if the copper is removed and then act accordingly. In addition, they also need to be careful when climbing power poles in case the copper grounds have been stolen.

Laverne Etheridge inspects copper that is used on utility poles to serve as a grounding wire. This type of grounding wire is a common target for copper thieves.

Linemen always install a copper ground wire from the top to the bottom of every pole. Oftentimes, thieves will try to steal this copper as high as they can reach, typically up to 8 ft off of the ground. As a result, the pole is no longer grounded, and the neutral and ground potential will be different, leading to a possible electrocution of a lineman.

Handling Vehicle Break-Ins

Unfortunately, the thieves are not only targeting the substations, they are also stealing copper wiring from the utility’s work headquarters, operating centers and even from linemen’s trucks.

When the Ameren Illinois linemen are either working up in a bucket or on the ground away from their work trucks, robbers have snuck up to the truck and used bolt cutters to snip the padlocks off of the locked storage units. They then help themselves to the entire spools of copper wiring as well as to cell phones, mobile computers and other tools.

When the linemen leave their work trucks in easements or out in the street, they often can’t see what’s happening when they’re out in the backyard. The theft often occurs when the linemen aren’t in full view of their work truck.

When a lineman reports that a copper theft has occurred, Ameren Illinois calls the police and officers often come out to the job site, take a report and then take fingerprints. That area is then considered a crime scene, and it can delay work by a few hours or more.

The robberies are often frustrating for the field crews who come out ready to do their work, and then when they check their trucks, something is missing. They then have to turn around and start their day by restocking their trucks. They also have to do a complete inventory of all the tools and items within the truck to ensure that nothing else has been taken besides the copper wiring.

This is especially problematic during emergency situations. In the middle of the night, when a lineman has to make repairs because of a large outage, it can delay the restoration process if tools or materials are taken off of the truck. While the utility usually will allow the lineman to get on to another truck, he or she may not be as familiar with the tools on that truck and the transition will take additional time to deal with.

Taking Action

Following the epidemic of robberies, Ameren Illinois has implemented a variety of different measures and has gotten its linemen on board to help. For example, the linemen now install barbed staples every 6 inches on the ground wire. They drive an additional six to eight staples into the copper wiring, and while it’s easy to drive them in, it’s hard to get them out.

Ameren Illinois has found that this has been an effective deterrent because it’s often more work than the thieves are willing to do to remove the barbed staples, which has three to four barbs on each shank.

Ameren Illinois installed new fencing around its operating center in East St. Louis, Illinois, to help reduce the chances of theft.

The utility has also adhered microdots to the copper wiring. They can apply these microdots by spraying them on or applying them with a Q-tip. These microdots, which are extremely small, become almost invisible when placed on the copper wiring. In fact, someone could put about 100 microdots in the palm of a hand. While they can’t be seen with the naked eye, when light is shown on the microdots, the police can read the serial number, Ameren Illinois and a phone number.

Ameren Illinois also has painted a sample of the copper wiring gray so the wiring doesn’t look like copper. What often happens, however, is that the thieves take the copper wiring off the spools and then chop it into sections before they sell it to the scrap yard.

Another way that the utility is guarding against the robberies is through better fencing. The utility just installed a new fence at its East St. Louis operating center, and the fence is harder to cut than the previous material. Also, the company is investing in improved lighting at its substations and operating centers. The problem, however, is that sometimes these substations are in residential neighborhoods, and it’s not practical or reasonable for Ameren to shine spotlights on the equipment because of light pollution.

Cameras are also ways to spot robberies and deter thefts. In fact, Ameren invested in some portable covert cameras that can be placed on the copper wiring so that when it leaves the yard, the camera films where it is going.

Because the thieves are breaking into not only the substation yards and operating centers but also linemen’s vehicles, Ameren Illinois has ramped up its security for its storm trailers. When the utility is called out to assist on a storm, security guards watch the material trailers overnight while the linemen are asleep. That way, the trailers won’t get stripped of necessary supplies in the middle of the night. If that happens, it can take two to three hours for Ameren Illinois to restock the truck, which affects the restoration time to the customers.

Also, Ameren Illinois keeps the location of its storm trailer under wraps to prevent a robbery. In the past, the company used to set up its storm trailer in a well-lit parking lot, but now it doesn’t disclose the location until the trailer has been set into its location.

Cooperating with the Community

To make a difference, Ameren Illinois is trying special preventive measures on its own as well as partnering with local enforcement agencies and a task force to stop the problem in its tracks. The utility is working to help educate the local scrap yards about what stolen copper typically looks like, and is encouraging the scrap yards to notify the utility immediately if someone tries to sell stolen copper wiring marked with the Ameren Illinois name.

The scrap yards are usually willing to cooperate with the police. For example, one scrap yard had a photo of suspects from a previous theft, and they called the police and told them that they had the suspects there at their business.

Greg Fernandez inspects security cameras at the operating center in Belleville, Illinois, which was recently hit by a copper theft.

Ameren Illinois also took the lead in the creation of a scrap metal task force initiative. The utility is working with local, state and federal agencies to talk about the copper theft issue. The utility meets with law enforcement monthly to talk about problems, brainstorm solutions and find ways to change the laws and push for new legislation.

Ameren Illinois paints microdots on copper wiring so it can easily be traced if someone at temps to sell it to a scrap yard. The microdot only shows up when put underneath a special light.

For example, last August, Illinois approved legislation to prevent scrap metal operators to use cash to buy copper and air-conditioning materials worth more than $100. Instead, they must only accept checks or money orders. In addition, the operators are prohibited from buying metal from government or stolen property, such as from an electric utility.

By partnering with other industry leaders and law enforcement agencies, Ameren Illinois is leading the charge against copper theft. In the meantime, the utility is protecting its linemen in the field and trying to crack down on crime. 

Greg Fernandez ([email protected]) is a security investigator for Ameren Corp. He has worked with Ameren Corporate Security since September 2006. Fernandez is responsible for ensuring the personal safety of Ameren employees as well as providing security for Ameren property and facilities.

Michelle Martychenko ([email protected]) is the supervisor of electric construction and has been with Ameren Illinois for seven years. She is responsible for handling Ameren and contractor crews and one-person trucks.

Laverne Etheridge ([email protected]) is the Belleville systems coordination foreman for Ameren Illinois and has been with the company for more than 20 years. In his current role, he is responsible for aligning crews and equipment while addressing operational issues to ensure completion of the weekly schedule.

Editor’s note: To learn more about copper theft prevention at Ameren Illinois, view a video clip at http://youtu.be/aZkbTRknIUk.

Sidebar: Five Ways to Keep You and Your Crew Safe Out in the Field

Greg Fernandez, a security investigator for Ameren Corp., offers these tips for keeping linemen safe on the job:

  1. Report suspicious activity. If you see someone loitering around a substation who doesn’t look like he or she should be there, call security. Always be aware of your surroundings.
  2. Park to exit. Back into a driveway or park in a location where you can easily drive off if you are in a dangerous situation. Also, make sure you drive with the windows up and your doors locked for your safety.
  3. Identify your location. Make sure others in your company know where you are working. You also should know exactly where you are stationed in case you need to ask for help.
  4. Don’t fight over the copper. While copper and other materials on your truck can be replaced, your personal safety is the top priority.
  5. Always check for copper grounds. If your utility is experiencing a rash of copper thefts, make sure you check the pole grounds on power poles and at substations before beginning work to avoid electrocution.

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