According to PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian, vandals have stripped copper wire from more than 300 utility poles and two transformers in Antioch. The poles cost about $500 to repair, while transformer repair costs roughly $12,000.
Last year, fewer than 10 PG&E utility poles were vandalized, said Sarkissian, who noted that Antioch has probably seen the biggest spike of copper theft throughout the Bay Area.
“The main message that we’re trying to send out is: this is extremely dangerous to attempt to steal energized wire,” Sarkissian said. “What we’re really hoping is that the community can support us by reporting anything that they see that may be suspicious to law enforcement and to PG&E.”
Thieves strip copper from vacant homes, utility poles, schools and other buildings with large air conditioning systems, then recycle it for quick cash. Antioch Police Captain Leonard Orman said people steal the copper from one area, then drive to another one to recycle in order to not arouse suspicion. The police have been in constant contact with recycling facilities, but the most effective way to stop copper theft is to stop it in the act.
In the past few weeks, two utility poles have been sawed down in order to access the transformer. On June 6, a pole was cut down near the railroad tracks on Auto Center Drive and the transformer was stripped for its metal. Ten days later, an entire transformer was stolen on Wilbur Avenue near Apollo Court.
Orman said it’s been a problem Antioch and other Bay Area cities have dealt with for a while, as the value of copper begins to rise again. Previously, aluminum was more valuable, leading to more thefts of that metal. Orman estimated the value of copper at about $3 per pound.
But while the recent onslaught to PG&E poles sounds like a serious uptick, it’s roughly what the city has dealt with on average the past few years. “Clearly there’s an increase where PG&E has been the victim,” Orman said. “Overall copper thefts are pretty static and have been for years. Really the only time that we see a dramatic drop in copper thefts is when the price of copper drops.”
As lack of staffing has forced the Antioch Police Department to shift its primary focus from property crimes to violent crimes, copper-theft busts have decreased. Orman noted that the department is going high-tech to track down the vandals, building a database of people who have turned in copper in multiple cities.
“You’re dealing with volume of stolen metal that’s unidentifiable,” Orman said. “It’s a huge problem and it’s due to the fact that it’s valuable.”
Sarkissian urges those who see suspicious activity near a utility pole to call the Antioch police non-emergency line at 925-778-2441 or the PG&E company hotline at 800-743-5000.