Copper theft can be dangerous—even deadly. The metal is attractive for thieves, who often find the cover of night and the remoteness of a construction or utilities site the perfect scene for their crimes.
The value of copper is driven by the classic supply-and-demand scenario—the world's copper mining industry can't produce enough to keep up with the demand, says Ross Johnson, CPP, senior manager, security and contingency planning at Capital Power in Alberta, Canada.
"Since you cannot mine copper fast enough to keep up with the demand, the shortfall is made up from the recycling industry, and that's what drives up the value of copper," he notes. "Generally, when the price per pound on the scrap market goes up, what happens is the theft goes up as well."
In Canada, where there is little regulation in the recycling industry, thieves can more easily trade stolen materials for cash. "There's always a level of background theft around construction, especially in the electricity sector because there's so much copper that's used," Johnson explains.
There have been at least 15 deaths in the last five years related to metal theft in Canada, according to data from the Canadian Electricity Association. Thieves are often either unaware or unconcerned about the high-powered voltage running through copper and can be badly burned, or worse.
"Copper is used to ground electrical equipment," Johnson explains. "When people break into our facilities to steal copper, it renders the equipment unsafe because it isn't grounded anymore, and it could kill the thieves or utility workers that are going in to work on it."
Even when the bad actors manage to escape unscathed, there is a ripple effect in the surrounding community. For example, in October 2013 in Surrey, British Columbia, thieves cut through a utility pole in the province and waited for the BC Hydro and Power authority to respond by shutting off the power.
Once the power was cut off, the thieves removed five meters of braided copper wire. A nearby clinic was left without power for two days, affecting its ability to treat more than 200 patients.
There has been a concerted effort by the sectors most affected by copper and other metal theft to fight back.
One such coalition is Provincial Electricity Physical Security (PEPS) Alberta, a working group made up of stakeholders from the electricity, metal, and telecommunications industries.
PEPS was formed about a decade ago to fight industrial crime in rural areas through legislative and educational efforts. The group works alongside the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and other law enforcement entities to reduce and prevent crime.
Scrap metal theft. PEPS is working with the recycling industry and the provincial government to find ways to reduce metal theft. These methods include developing training material for the construction industry on safeguarding assets and for law enforcement to help identify stolen material, sharing of information related to incidents to help police resolve crime, and studying potential legislation to make it more difficult to sell stolen material.
"When thieves steal metal from us, they can take it to a recycler, and then the recycler buys it—that's where the trail goes cold," Johnson notes. "And the police can't investigate it because they need to be able to identify who sold that material to the recycler."
"We've been working with Alberta Justice, and a senior-level official and her staff," Johnson says. "The Alberta Justice officials we work with are actually members of PEPS, too, so they attend the meetings and communicate regularly with members."
Calgary bylaw. There is a precedent for such regulation in the Alberta recycling industry. Calgary, a city within the Province of Alberta, passed a bylaw making it more difficult for thieves to trade in scrap metal without being traced.
"The Calgary Police Service initiated an investigative strategy named Operation Metallica, and it involved a team of police officers who focused on metal theft using the Calgary bylaw," Johnson notes.
One recycler he spoke to in the city said that she noticed an improvement in customers when the bylaw was passed; crooks were no longer coming to trade in stolen scrap metal.
"They were so successful in stomping out metal theft in Calgary that after a two-year period, Operation Metallica was terminated because the officers had accomplished their objectives," Johnson adds. "Calgary was a great example that this could work."
While metal and other valuable materials make substations and other utilities sites attractive to thieves, Johnson says sites are weakest during the construction phase.
"It's usually because fences aren't permanent—if there are any—and there are often excavations and other things exposing wire and conduit," he adds.
As the potential for theft goes up, so does the potential for danger, Johnson says, explaining that stealing copper is literally playing with fire.
"Most people's experience with electricity is the wall outlets in your home in the wall where you get 115 volts," he says. "When you're dealing with electricity at the transmission and distribution levels, it is phenomenally dangerous."
Safety concerns. Johnson used to work as security director at EPCOR Utilities Inc., formerly the Edmonton Power Corporation, a distribution and transmission company. "We had a construction arm as well that did a lot of work, and we were constantly getting hit by copper thieves," he says.
On one occasion, a thief trespassed on one of EPCOR's properties to steal copper. He entered an area of the substation that was fenced off from the rest of the substation and touched a piece of equipment.
The resulting arc flash flowed around him—not through him—and his clothing from the waist up caught fire. The substation engineers later said that there were about 7,000 amps of electricity in that plasma cloud (one-tenth of an amp can kill a person), and it would have been hotter than the surface of the sun.
EPCOR officials were greatly concerned after the incident about safety—not just of their workers, but of any potential bad actors who could be killed or injured. An executive of the company asked if an extra layer of fencing around all substations in the city would help, but Johnson said that would merely push the security concerns out further—not eliminate them.
Construction guideline. "After a copper theft at a construction site or substation, the workers would tell us that they weren't concerned with the value of the copper stolen—they were only worried that someone would get hurt," Johnson says.
In one incident, someone used a pair of pruning shears to cut an energized 14.4-kilovolt line at a construction site.
"The damaged shears were found the next morning, and the worried electrical workers searched the area to see if the would-be thief was dead or injured," Johnson says. Not finding him, they even called local hospitals to see if they had a recent admission with severe burns.
With more than three years of experience as a safety and security supervisor in Houston's offshore oil industry, Johnson says he understood that metal theft was not primarily a security concern, but a safety issue that would best be addressed through safety management planning.
Few construction workers have security plans, but they all have safe work plans. The plan was simple: no copper left above ground after they cease work at the end of the day, and nothing—no scrap, no bulk wire, etc.—left in containers or anywhere else on site overnight. It was all removed and returned to the service center each evening. This new approach to combating metal theft paid immediate dividends—metal theft from construction sites almost disappeared.
The lessons learned at EPCOR eventually became part of a document from PEPS, the Construction Security Practices Guideline, which iterates that taking simple precautions throughout and at the end of the work day can help prevent crime and increase worker safety.
And one of the best ways to deter thieves mentioned in the guide? Don't use copper at all.
"One of the most effective crime-reducing measures is to not use attractive metals in the first place," according to the guideline. "Avoid using solid copper grounding straps and components wherever possible: use copper-clad steel (such as Copperweld) instead, because it has no commercial value."
Copperweld works similarly to copper, though it must be installed differently and doesn't have the same resistance as copper.
"It's steel or zinc coated with copper and it has no commercial value. You can take it to a recycler and they just don't want it," Johnson explains. "We tell people, 'If you have copper stolen, do not replace it with copper—because then they'll just come back and steal the replacement stuff, and you've become an automated teller machine,'" he says.
Wind farms. As a wave of new construction is being planned for wind farms in Alberta, PEPS is aiming to introduce physical security measures to help reduce crime.
Pick any point in central Alberta, and there is a good chance a thick seam of coal lies deep beneath the ground. Traditionally, a majority of the province's energy was generated by coal plants. But Canada, a member of the Paris Agreement on climate change, is making strides as a nation to be less dependent on nonrenewable energy sources.
The New Democratic Party, which won the election in 2015, launched a billion dollar initiative last year to have renewable power make up 30 percent of the province's energy demands by 2030. With an aggressive timeline of constructing 5,000 megawatts of wind and solar farms, the government began taking bids from the private sector.
Johnson's company, Capital Power, had one of the first winning bids.
"There are all these wind farms being built in southern Alberta—and we do not want to feed crime," he says.
PEPS Alberta is working on several physical security measures that can be employed at the wind farms that will help deter and detect bad actors who, as previously discussed, tend to be attracted to construction sites.
Thankfully, Johnson says there are several simple ways that the private companies constructing the wind and solar farms can cut down on crime, as noted in the Construction Safety Guideline. One tool of choice for thieves is a disc grinder, which can cut through metal locks.
However, Johnson says heavy-duty locks that are immune to the disc grinder are available. Johnson is also working with Capital Power employee Ian Sustrik to create a small Internet of Things sensor that would be able to pick up any vibrations caused by a disc grinder being operated at a wind turbine—a thief has already tried his hand at cutting through one, Johnson says.
"The sensor sits on the inside of the door, and it's tuned for the vibration that you would get from a disc grinder," he notes. "If the sensor picks up that vibration, it sends a signal out and informs security."
The solution is low-cost due to the way the sensor communicates back to the security operations center. Rather than using cellular communication, which would require a more intricate network to be built, the sensor passes on the message to the sensor closest to it, then that sensor sends it to its neighbor, and so on—like a game of telephone.
"The message is passed down until it's got the one that has the cellular system on it, and that's the sensor that sends it to security," Johnson says.
As Capital Power works to develop similar security solutions, the company will disseminate them with the help of PEPS Alberta so other companies can take advantage.
"What we're doing here at Capital Power is trying to solve problems, and then sharing the solutions as widely as we can," Johnson says. "Ian will create sensors and then send out the instructions on how to build them, for whoever is interested."
While PEPS Alberta is working with private sector and government officials to reduce crime, it is also focused on one of its primary audiences it says can help prevent theft—the public.
As part of this effort, Dan Blacklock, a former communications advisor to energy company AltaLink and former public relations lead for PEPS Alberta, says the group has developed several materials targeted at rural communities where crime is highest.
"These thieves come from rural communities, so it's about inspiring those communities to take action and work with local law enforcement, or to report suspicious activity that they see in their communities at rural substations," Blacklock says. "That's our number one lead to arrests, information that's brought to [Canada] Crime Stoppers and law enforcement from these rural communities of seeing suspicious activity knowing someone who has done something."
Ad campaign. PEPS Alberta plans to launch a public awareness campaign soon that includes a series of advertisements with statistics about the number of people affected by metal theft, and case study examples of how the crime impacts the community.
Each ad contains the tagline, "When equipment theft happens, we all get left in the dark," along with a number to call to report suspicious activity.
Besides warnings about the danger of trying one's hand at metal theft, the ads also describe the increased physical security measures and law enforcement activity at substations to further deter thieves.
"Part of this awareness campaign is spreading the message that substations aren't easy targets, and that industries, law enforcement, and the government have come together to prevent it," Blacklock says.
The RCMP provided PEPS with a map of hotspot communities that have experienced the most substation crime in the past five years, and the ads are running in local newspapers in those communities. Facebook ads were also purchased to target specific communities, and posters will be placed in recreational centers and hockey arenas.
"Information and education around the impacts of crimes like this, it's really a preemptive crime prevention tool," Blacklock says of the campaign. "So, it shouldn't be overlooked for its impact."
Construction materials guide. While the ad campaign primarily targets the public, PEPS Alberta has also come up with a guide for law enforcement to help them better identify types of metal and materials stolen from construction sites.
Johnson recalls at an ASIS Seminar and Exhibits in Houston, members from Texas had produced similar materials for law enforcement.
"At an ASIS Houston lunch, there was a guy there saying a state trooper didn't know what oil field equipment looked like," he says. "Consequently, when they pulled over a pickup truck that had a bed full of stolen oilfield equipment, they didn't recognize it immediately as stolen—they just thought it was scrap."
PEPS solicited photographs and descriptions of items most stolen from the different sectors, resulting in the Critical Infrastructure Stolen Materials Recognition Guide, which acts as a look-book for law enforcement should they come across suspicious looking goods.
"It doesn't cost anything to share," Johnson says. "I can create a PDF document on my computer and I can send it out to the world, and it doesn't cost anything."
Outlook. PEPS Alberta is continuing to work with its partners in critical infrastructure, law enforcement, the recycling industry, and the provincial and federal governments to find ways to reduce crime, increase reliability, and keep communities safe.
In the meantime, PEPS believes that through its Construction Safety Guideline, the advertising campaign targeted at the public, and other awareness materials, crime can be reduced or even eliminated at construction and substation sites throughout the province.
"Someone can look at those crimes and think, 'It's just an industrial crime and there aren't any victims,'" Blacklock says. "But when you actually take a step back, you can see how serious and impactful those crimes are—people's lives are at risk."
Johnson reiterates that by stopping crime at a rural substation or a remote construction site, the ripple effects that devastate communities can be eliminated.
"The aim here is to stop people from stealing our stuff because it brings in thieves. If thieves are successful, they'll come back. If they come back, they're stealing not only our stuff, but they're stealing from the local farmers, the local communities," he says. "And that's bad for everybody."
Sidebar: Metal Theft Impacts Communities
Copper isn't the only type of metal that thieves are after, says Ross Johnson, CPP, senior manager, security and contingency planning at Capital Power.
Any type of nonferrous metal—not containing iron—is potentially valuable to crim-inals, including lead, zinc, brass, and aluminum. For example, cell phone tower batteries are often targeted for the lead they contain.
And the value the criminals get for the stolen material versus the cost to replace and repair the damage is virtually nothing. "You have a $400 battery that is stolen and destroyed for $3 worth of lead," he notes.
Brass theft has also been a major problem in Alberta and has had a devastating effect on the history of local communities. Not only do thieves steal brass urns from cemeteries—in some cases, brass plaques memorializing war veterans have been destroyed.
"Thieves are removing the brass plaques and destroying them, and then taking them in for the brass metal value," Johnson says. "The problem with that is that nobody knows what the plaque said, unless you have a photograph of it."
In 2018, an Edmonton man was arrested for stealing 18 memorial plaques, receiving $525 for the scrap metal, reported Radio Canada International.
"Literally the history of small towns is disappearing, especially around war memorials," Johnson says. "To me, that's a compelling reason to try to stop this."
What is PEPS Alberta?
PEPS (Provincial Electricity Physical Security) Alberta is a team of men and women from the electricity, oil and gas, telecommunications, energy pipelines, and water industries; the National Energy Security Professionals (NESP) group; trade associations; recyclers; law enforcement; the metal forging industry; the National Energy Board; and governments at the Canadian federal, provincial, and municipal levels.
The PEPS coalition promotes public safety, the resilience of critical infrastructure, and crime prevention.