Antioch Director of Public Works Ron Bernal said that at the current rate, his city will spend roughly $150,000 this year fixing the damage done by copper wire thieves. In the first four months of this year, Antioch spent about $50,000 to repair damage to streetlights and another $10,000 in parks. Bernal noted that vandals have struck all areas of the town and that attacks come randomly.
PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian confirmed that of all East County towns, Antioch has absorbed the biggest blow.
In 2010, fewer than 10 utility poles throughout Contra Costa and Alameda counties were damaged by copper thieves. So far in Antioch, the company has repaired roughly 300 utility poles. In that city, PG&E has paid roughly $210,000 to replace and repair the poles hit by vandals.
“That’s out of the ordinary to see in one community in one stretch of time,” Sarkissian said. “We’ve worked really closely with Antioch police on this particular situation and we have seen the occurrences taper off.”
In addition to the cost to cities, Sarkissian also noted the extreme danger associated with copper wire theft. She said PG&E has dealt with electrocutions, injuries and even deaths of copper thieves.
Those doing the damage aren’t risking their lives for much cash. Sarkissian estimated that copper is currently worth only about $2 per pound.
Though government has placed strict regulations on how copper wire is returned, some facilities don’t always stick to the law.
According to Oakley-based Delta Scrap owner Ken Graunstadt, customers must prove that they’re the logical owner of copper wire. The facility then fingerprints the person returning the wire and gets a copy of the person’s driver’s license. Unless the returnee represents a business, a three-day hold is put on the check. Delta Scrap also refuses to pay cash for returns greater than $20, which has proven to be a deterrent for criminals.
“It’s the law,” Graunstadt said. “Not all scrap dealers go by it.”
However, copper thieves have struck more than just utility poles and parks. Foreclosed homes have long been a target. Earlier this month, a man who owns some vacant homes in Antioch caught an alleged copper wire thief in the act – and shot and killed him.
This summer, St. Ignatius of Antioch Church suffered a rash of copper wire theft misfortune. In the span of two months, thieves stole the wire from the church four times. In one incident, copper wire was stolen from seven air conditioning units. Fr. Robert Rien noted that each one cost $5,000 to replace. The thieves only got about $39 worth of copper from each unit, he said.
“We realized how difficult times are and that people are very needy,” Rien said, “but it was very frustrating to think that they would hit the church that many times.”
But new measures are being taken to help prevent future theft. In Antioch, stolen copper wire is being replaced by aluminum wire, which Bernal said is less valuable, so criminals leave it alone. Sarkissian said PG&E is doing the same thing. Both companies have also taken greater security measures to make structures harder to break into.
Rien’s church has raised funds for new gates, and parishioners have volunteered overnight security services.
Brentwood has taken a more high-tech approach, installing cameras at city parks that not only record images but tell potential criminals to leave. Brentwood Police Lt. Tom Hansen said that while they haven’t caught any copper thieves in the act, the cameras have kept some ne’er-do-wells at bay. Even still, he said, the problem is a costly one.
“We’re losing a tremendous amount of money,” Hansen said. “Something’s got to give. We’ve got to get up to Sacramento and get some legislation passed.”