Copper Wire Thefts Leave City Powerless -- Literally

Categories: Crime
Bright Copper Wire 400.jpg
The path to riches, or premature death -- or both?
Scrap dealers on the lookout for a stolen 600-pound church bell can now keep their eyes peeled for more hot metal -- the city is undergoing a spate of copper wiring thefts.

San Francisco Police have been called in to at least a dozen copper wire thefts from underground power vaults in the past three weeks. Also, yesterday, thieves made off with copper wiring that triggered a power outage at UCSF Medical Center and forced the hospital onto backup generators.

But is there great money to be made in ripping off copper wiring?

Well -- you're not going to retire on it. According to scrap metal dealers SF Weekly has chatted with, copper brings in $2.90 to $3 a pound, and 30 feet of wiring might weigh around 20 pounds

Of course, that might be enough money to risk death by electrocution for the people removing manhole covers and using hacksaws or bolt cutters to steal copper wiring serving as the "neutral leg" in high-voltage power delivery.

Calls to police querying exactly how much copper has been purloined in the past three weeks did not turn up answers. Department spokesman Sergeant Troy Dangerfield says it's hard to say. The victims reporting thefts rarely report the weight or amount of wiring they've lost. It doesn't take too much missing wiring to trigger a power outage -- or satisfy a thief, it would seem.

"A lot of them are simply running off with it. People use bicycles, put what they can on the bike, and go. If they get 15 bucks for it, they're happy," says Dangerfield. "The type of people who steal copper -- how should I put this? They're not regular, working-class people who come home and say, 'Oh, let's go steal some copper.'"

This is a problem that has existed for many years prior to the current wave of thefts from power vaults, Dangerfield adds.
The underground vaults hit so far are in the 4500 and 4900 blocks of Mission; the vicinities of Mission and 14th and Mission and 12th; Folsom and Hawthorne; Drumm and Battery; the 400 block of Jackson; Gough and O'Farrell, Sacramento and Webster; Turk and Masonic; Mission and Harrington; and Eighth and Minna. Police describe these blocks as "light industrial areas" with no overhead wires.

Neither police nor citizens are encouraged to wander into subterranean vaults "as the possibility of electrocution is very high."

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