Friday, October 10, 2008

Metals Theft Summit Brings Renewed Commitment to Catch Thieves

PRNewswire/ -- "I'm sure we all wish the passage of a law could eradicate a criminal act, but it doesn't work that way," said Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI) Director Vernon Keenan.

Keenan made the remarks at a Metals Theft Stakeholder Summit held Oct. 6 in middle Georgia and telecast in Atlanta. Keenan referred to legislation passed in 2007 which allows prosecutors a greater ability to seek a felony conviction (rather than a misdemeanor) for the crime of metals theft. Despite changes to the law, however, metals thefts continue to rise at an alarming rate.

Consequently, Georgia Electric Membership Corporation (EMC) hosted the Metals Theft Stakeholders Summit during which approximately 100 representatives from across Georgia, representing utilities, telecommunications, law enforcement, district attorneys, railroads, homebuilders, apartment owners, automobile dealers and recyclers, among others, gathered to bring attention to the widespread nature of these crimes and share the devastating impact to businesses and consumers.

Since these organizations and consumer groups have been hardest hit and have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars associated with the problem, they are partnering to galvanize their grassroots efforts in communities throughout Georgia to enhance coordination of security and communication among stakeholders and consider ways to stem the rising tide of these costly crimes.

According to Georgia EMC Vice President of Government Relations and Communications and Member Services Bill Verner, thieves are becoming increasingly bold and careless when stealing metals.

"Consumers foot the bill for the damage left by a wire thief. Utilities must pass along increased costs to replace and repair damaged equipment, and more importantly, our employees and the public are left vulnerable to electrocution hazards in the wake of many such crimes," Verner said.

"Homebuilders, already struggling in today's tough economy, must replace copper stolen from new and vacant houses. Apartment owners must increase rent to recover costs, and taxpayers are bearing the costly treatment in emergency rooms for burn victims who've been injured during the course of break-ins to energized electric substations. The costs to the consumer -- and public safety -- are tremendous," he said.

Consequences extend beyond consumers' pocketbooks. Recreation leagues have been forced to cancel soccer and basketball practice for hundreds of young athletes throughout the state, because copper has been ripped from poles which light soccer fields and basketball courts. Churches have suspended services after copper was taken from pipes and air conditioners, and a small historic church in rural Washington County was burned to the ground last year by copper thieves who tried to cover up their crime with the fire.

According to Verner, metals thefts are now causing power outages in some parts of the country. Yesterday approximately 7,400 residents in Ohio lost power following a copper theft. "When wire is ripped from a substation as happened this week in Ohio," he said, "It can result in entire neighborhoods losing power."

Since metals thefts affect a wide spectrum of businesses and associations, the summit attracted representatives from the electric cooperatives throughout Georgia, Georgia Transmission Corp., Georgia Power, AT&T, MEAG Power, Southwire, Homebuilders Association of Georgia, Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, Georgia Sheriffs Association, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, Norfolk Southern, Georgia Apartment Association and Georgia Automobile Dealers Association, among others.

During the meeting, stakeholders discussed possible ways to reduce the rash of thefts, while representatives ranging from the Homebuilders Association of Georgia to Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia discussed the financial and safety impacts of these crimes and the challenges they face when attempting to enforce the law.

The EMCs in Georgia reported approximately 350 incidents of metals thefts in 2007 with costs reaching $200,000. Companies such as Georgia Transmission Corp. reported as many as 98 incidents (through September 2008) totaling $500,000. AT&T and Georgia Power spokespersons reported 56 incidents (through August 2008) costing more than $100,000, and 147 incidents (through September 2008) totaling $237,000, respectively.

Coalition members pledged to maintain an open dialogue among stakeholders; strengthen relationships among recyclers, sheriffs, chiefs of police, district attorneys, and public and private businesses; pursue additional avenues of prevention and work to close any loops in existing state law.

Stakeholders agree it will take a solid partnership and cooperation to lessen the epidemic and stem the surge of these unlawful acts, and each committed during the meeting to become an active partner in the effort to reduce metals thefts.

Georgia EMC is the statewide trade association representing the state's 42 EMCs, Oglethorpe Power Corp. and Georgia Transmission Corp. Collectively, Georgia's customer-owned EMCs provide electricity and related services to four million people, nearly half of Georgia's population, across 73 percent of the state's land area.

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