Copper theft can be deadly

Copper prices have skyrocketed over the last decade.

The search continues for three men who stole copper cable from NewsChannel 15's transmission tower in Dillon County.

The men were apparently not hurt during that theft, but trying to steal copper from high voltage sites can be deadly.

In North Carolina a couple of weeks ago, a man was electrocuted trying to cut ground wires at a substation.

Professional linemen know the danger of electricity and take no chances with it.

The power coming into a typical Horry Electric Cooperative substation is 115,000 volts. A thief who touches the wrong wire in a substation can end up instantly dead.

"Burned sometimes beyond belief," said Todd Nalley, Horry Electric's assistant manager of engineering.

Horry Electric has barbed wire fences, security cameras and lots of warning signs at each of its 23 substations.

But the worry that a copper thief might still try to get inside, keeps electrical engineers like Nalley up at night.

"If this station goes out in the middle of the night and I don't know the cause, that's the first thing that comes to my mind. Am I going to find someone in here?"

Copper theft at a substation is not just a hazard to the thief. It's a disturbance to customers. The substation's equipment is designed to trip a breaker and shut down if the wrong wire is cut.

"That means there's hundreds of members out sitting in the dark because of one person's negligence to electricity," said Brian Chestnut, Horry Electric's safety coordinator.

There is plenty of copper in a substation, to provide a ground for the transformers. But Horry Electric and other producers are switching from pure copper ground wires, to copper-clad steel.

This new type of ground wire is worthless as scrap, which makes it even more pointless - but just as dangerous - to try to steal it.

"These fences (at substations) are here to keep the people and the animals out for a reason and it's because electricity can injure someone or even kill them," Chestnut said.

Chestnut points out, water is an electrical conductor and our bodies are made of water. Electricity will seek the quickest path to reach the ground and if that path is through a human, that human can die.

Copper prices have skyrocketed over the last decade. The U.S. Department of Energy says copper theft is a one billion dollar problem.