Here beyond the fringes of suburban sprawl, we guard our space jealously, hoping that the miles between our homes and the hood might ensure peace and security, that our isolation will somehow protect us from harm.
It’s too bad, but the crooks among us are making a mockery of our dreams. Like stealthy rats, they gnaw at the framework of our infrastructure. While most of us sleep, they wreck miles of overhead electric lines, just to steal the copper. Already, the damage has cost our little electric company – the one we all own – tens of thousands of dollars..
What kind of brazen bandits do this? Apparently, scum smart enough to avoid getting fried or cause blackouts. Do they strap on spikes and climb power poles in the middle of the night? Borrow – or steal – bucket trucks? Prune the lines with tree-trimming tools?
I’ve wondered about this for weeks since my husband and I found the remnants of electric wire left hanging from a pole at the end of our driveway. We suspect addle-brained tweakers – meth addicts – are to blame. It’s pathetic how much skill, effort and motivation these vermin waste on risky scores that net them little but burden us much.
Ordinary burglaries aren’t news around here. Riding lawnmowers, chain saws, metal tools. Forget about leaving valuables where they could be snatched. They’ll be pawned, sold online, at flea markets or hawked alongside the highway. (You’ve seen those scruffy-looking guys with their beat-up vans, their strangely mixed-up, used equipment inventory in the dirt parallel to the traffic flow.)
Sad experience teaches us to keep gear under lock and key. A neighborhood-watch group has been organized, but whether it helps, who knows? Some neighbors I trust implicitly. Others, I’m not so sure.
We can be zealous about security, putting up giant, sloppily stenciled signs to warn snoops away. Or ranting about the doings of the nefarious characters tooling up and down the road. My family members keep their eyes out for this or that vehicle. We watch for those weirdos riding bikes. Some of us install alarms. Others, video surveillance systems.
Call me callous, but I have to admit I reacted indifferently late last year when I ripped open an electric bill and found a narrow flyer stuffed inside. The words COPPER THEFT were spelled out big and bold, an eye-catching split fountain of orange and brown. Ohop Mutual Light Co., with offices a couple of miles away, needed help catching vandals. Well, I thought to myself, we don’t drive by Ohop much, there’s no way we’d see anything amiss.
Wrong. The losses extend far beyond the substation. Ohop personnel respond to two or three reports a week of copper ripped from poles, an average of 500 to 700 feet in each instance. Just around my corner, crooks cut 855 feet from poles. I can’t say what they got for their trouble, but it might have been around $230.
The thefts aren’t limited to my neighborhood. Throughout Ohop’s service area, 100 square miles around Eatonville, copper has been swiped from overhead lines. My family is among about 4,300 customers, all owners of our electric company, taking the loss. Since last summer, repairs have cost more than $25,000, or roughly 20 percent of Ohop’s annual budget for equipment maintenance. That doesn’t include the wages of the linemen who drop everything to replace wire each time vandalism is reported.
Every utility serving Pierce County’s outer reaches is fighting the same plague, Ohop’s general manager told me; unfortunately, the penalties aren’t stiff enough to deter the crimes. She’d like to see lawmakers make changes that factor in the actual costs of repair.
To limit losses, Ohop crews now replace the neutral lines – the ones being cut – with aluminum, which generally isn’t worth taking. But so far the rustlers have plundered the copper faster than the power people can retrieve it.Susan Gordon, one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page, lives on about five acres north of Eatonville with her husband and son. She’s a former News Tribune staff writer. Reach her at SJGordon Communications@gmail.com.