March 18, 2010

Theft of copper wiring leaves path in the dark

DAVID HENCH

— By

Staff Writer

The theft of more than 10 tons of copper wire from lights along Portland's East End walkway could leave the ocean-side path unlighted for months as city workers try to repair damage worth more than $60,000.

''Whoever did it was quite professional,'' said Bob Leeman, Portland's director of public buildings. ''They went through the process of putting the cover plates back on the light poles. They didn't leave any evidence they were there, except the wire was missing.''

Last week's discovery was the latest in a surge of thefts targeting copper, which is fetching about $2 per pound from scrap dealers. The price of the industrial metal has jumped 400 percent in the past five years.

Houses slated for demolition, construction sites and even high-voltage electrical substations have been burglarized. Other metal items also have been stolen, including bronze flagpoles and exhaust systems' catalytic converters, which contain tiny amounts of platinum.

Last month, thieves broke into the construction site for the new Mercy Hospital in Portland and bypassed expensive power tools in favor of copper pipe. The thieves cut the pipe into 4-foot lengths to make it easier to load, said police Lt. Tony Ward.

The three-strand wire in the lights along the East End walkway is as big around as a finger and weighs about a pound per foot. The distance between lights can be almost 100 feet, and about 40 light poles were affected.

The thieves apparently opened junction boxes on the lights, snipped the wires and pulled them out.

The East End path gets heavy foot traffic, most of it during the day. Leeman said he would not be surprised if someone saw the thieves and thought they were just workers.

''They either had some special equipment, or some pretty rugged guys. I would guess they had the right equipment,'' he said, which would have included gear for spooling the wire. ''People who pull electrical wire for a living would have the right equipment.''

The theft was discovered by city workers who showed up Friday morning to work on lights to the east of Cutter Street. The thieves had taken about 2,100 feet of wire there and stopped short of an area that might have been covered by security cameras.

When the city started investigating, workers found that wire was missing from poles running west from Cutter Street to Tukey's Bridge, beneath the bridge and over to Back Cove. City officials estimate that a total of 21,000 feet of wire was stolen, Leeman said.

The thefts had gone unnoticed because lights were being worked on and power to at least a stretch of them had been shut down, said Leeman.

Some of the areas closer to Back Cove did have power. Leeman cannot say why the theft, or at least the lack of lighting, was not reported earlier.

Workers can't pinpoint the time of the theft, but the wires are tarnished where they were cut, suggesting that some time has passed, he said.

Fixing the lights might take more than money. The city will have to thread a new line through an underground conduit, using a Styrofoam ball with string attached, which is drawn through by a vacuum. If ice has infiltrated the conduit, that method won't work.

''We may be without lights until next spring,'' Leeman said.

Catching the thieves could be a challenge. Legitimate scrap copper can be hard to differentiate from stolen copper. Thieves may try to sell it out of state or sell it in small batches so they won't arouse suspicion, Ward said.

With 21,000 feet of copper wire, he said, ''I would think you would raise some suspicions.''

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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