Sky-high copper prices fuel surging theft problem

Hydro One is moving to phase out copper to combat expensive, and at times deadly, thefts at its power stations.

Thieves after valuable metal are willing to risk their lives while causing outages, costly repairs

Copper's sky-high value on the scrap market is fuelling a theft problem that is costing lives and money. (CBC)

This week Toronto police arrested a man they allege broke into seven Hydro One power stations, risking his life to steal cables and cash in on the sky-high value of copper.

But the man's arrest likely won't make a dent in a surging copper theft problem that costs Hydro One about $2 million a year and is prompting the utility to phase out pure copper in favour of cheaper metals that are less attractive to thieves.

Lori Anne Gardner, a security specialist with Hydro One, said stolen copper cables cause power outages and lead to costly damage. But more troubling is that copper thieves risk electrocution, not only for themselves but for employees working at hydro stations around the province.

"Its surprises me every time that people would break in and steal from our live structures," she told CBC News. In many cases the cabling is pulled from high-voltage lines. "A few inches higher and lower can be their lives," she said.

A YouTube video produced by Hydro One says thieves also often cut fences around power stations, leaving children at risk.

The Canadian Electricity Association recently reported that eight people have died in Canada in the past six years as a result of copper theft. Seven were thieves electrocuted in the process of removing copper from electrical installations. One was a security guard who encountered a theft in progress at a mine in Quebec and was killed by the thieves.

In January a copper theft caused an explosion at a power substation in Harvey, N.B. The subsequent outage left the town without power for a day.

Thefts affect the telecommunications, construction and railway industries.

The thefts, deaths and outages have prompted some to call on the cash-for-metal industry to be more regulated. Others are pushing for steeper penalties for copper thieves.

Copper worth up to $3 a pound

Fuelling the problem is copper's high value on the scrap metal market. A pound of certain grades of copper can fetch almost $3 a pound. A large box of copper loaded on a pallet can be worth $6,000.

Gary Dvorkin is a partner at Peel Scrap Metal recycling in Mississauga. He's been in the scrap business for 25 years and says when he sees someone come in with rolls of copper, he gets suspicious.

"We'll ask them where they got it from," he said. "Well ask them for a name and address and take down a licence plate. But stolen materials are hard to track."

Dvorkin said many of his customers are contractors who legitimately turn in material left over from job sites.

"It's not really our job to be the police force, to tell somebody that they stole something when we don't have any information that they did," he said.

"The police do come a few times a year looking for stolen material and we try to help them as much as we can."

With files from CBC's Philip-Lee Shanok


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