Last Friday’s arrest of Danny Rittenberry was just one example of a rash of recent copper thefts that have affected a local power company.
Rittenberry reportedly was apprehended inside a Riceboro substation and was discovered with a large bag of copper wires and a bolt cutter, according to an incident report from the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office. Deputies investigating the scene said they discovered strands of copper wiring inside a vehicle Rittenberry alleged parked outside the substation.
LCSO Detective Tracy Jennings said copper theft has been a problem in the community for quite some time, affecting several local power stations and housing developments.
J. Mark Bolton, vice president of Coastal Electric Cooperative’s communications, marketing and economic development, said the thefts have cost Coastal EMC thousands of dollars in repairs.
“Coastal Electric has experienced 18 copper theft break-ins at our electric substations since January 3, 2011,” he said.
“The substations are jointly owned by Coastal Electric Cooperative and Georgia Transmission Corporation. Between the two owners, each occurrence requires approximately $5,000 in repair costs. That included both materials and labor.”
Coastal EMC serves customers in Liberty, Long, Bryan and McIntosh counties. Within Liberty and Long counties, the company has nine substations.
“The incident at the Riceboro substation was the 19th occurrence,” Bolton said, adding that most of the substations have been targeted more than once.
Because of the substantial losses, he said, the company beefed up its security measures and last Friday received an alert.
“On July 22nd between 12:53 a.m. and 1 a.m., Coastal Electric received 18 alarms indicating that a copper theft was in progress,” Bolton said. “The Liberty County Sheriff’s Office was contacted when the first alarm occurred. The arrest was made at 1:07 a.m.”
Bolton said the same substation was hit a few weeks earlier but the perpetrator fled the scene, leaving some of his tools behind.
“This is a serious problem, not just for Coastal Electric but for all utility companies across Georgia and elsewhere,” he said. “It is being driven, no doubt, by tough economic times and also by the current high prices being paid for scrap metals.”
Bolton said several power companies are pushing for legislation that would make it more difficult to sell the copper wires at recycling plants.
But he added that local agencies are doing their part to reduce the thefts.
“All of the law-enforcement officers have been very helpful and cooperative, and the local scrap metal dealers have been extremely helpful in helping us,” he said.
“The Liberty County Sheriff’s Office has been incredibly supportive of our efforts to catch the thief or thieves involved. Their response was fast and they drove up and caught the theft in progress.”
Bolton added that thieves are risking their lives by taking copper wiring from substations. Regarding last week’s incident, Jennings said Rittenberry “would have fried” if he had cut a few more wires or a live line.
Bolton said the thefts are destructive in many ways.
“Aside from being incredibly dangerous to enter an 115,000-volt electric substation and begin cutting down copper wire, it also threatens electric service reliability for our members,” he said.