On July 1, the electric membership corporations (EMCs) in Georgia observed the first anniversary of legislation to bring harsher penalties to those charged with metals theft.
"Metals theft is not a victimless crime," says Bill Verner, vice president, government relations, communications and member services with Georgia EMC. "Consumers foot the bill for replacing and repairing the damage left by a wire thief."
In 2007, the EMCs and Georgia EMC led an industry effort to craft legislation aimed at toughening the existing law. The new law, which took effect July 1, 2007, forces the defendant to make full restitution to the lawful owner of the stolen metal and allows the prosecutor to prosecute based on how much it will cost to return the affected property to its original condition and not just the salvage value of the stolen metal.
According to Verner, the legislation allows prosecutors a greater ability to seek a felony conviction (rather than a misdemeanor) and keep criminals off the streets.
With copper prices soaring to $3.90 a pound, compared to $0.77 in 2003, EMCs have seen an escalation of metal thefts in substations, from utility poles, from the back of service trucks or in warehouses.
In 2007 and 2008, electric cooperatives in Georgia alone reported more than 350 separate heists of copper theft and other wire amounting to substantial financial losses, endangerment to personnel and the public, and compromising reliability.
This nationwide epidemic is ultimately costing consumers of utilities (and home builders, apartment owners, telephone and wireless providers, and even breweries) hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in Georgia alone, while electrical injuries sustained by perpetrators are most likely borne by the taxpayer for treatment at area hospital emergency rooms and burn centers.
As a result, EMCs are investigating and implementing deterrence measures such as cameras, surveillance and locking materials in steel containers at project sites.
The EMCs, Georgia EMC and numerous other stakeholders continue to work on an educational effort to advise local prosecutors, sheriffs, chiefs of police, county commissioners, mayors and scrap metal dealers about the severe economic and safety problems associated with scrap metal theft.
Members of the public should contact the local sheriff's department if they spot someone other than an authorized utility employee or approved contractor near an existing electric substation or EMC project site.