UPDATE: Two more Westar Energy Substations Hit

By: Parrish Alleman Email
By: Parrish Alleman Email
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Monday, April 29, 2013

Westar Energy leaders they discovered Monday that copper thieves had targeted two other substations over the weekend, in addition to the one where $200,000 in damage was done.

The other substations hit were one north of Valley Center and one along the canal route in Wichita.

These newest cases of copper theft bring the number of thefts in April at Westar Energy substations to 31. There were just 15 thefts all of last year, Westar Manager Doug VenJohn said.

On Monday, VenJohn says he had crews at six different substations to make copper theft-related repairs.

"In some cases we are finding more theft than we can repair in a day," VenJohn said. "We are coming back and doing repairs on stuff we have already done."

Experts say what's driving the theft increase is, in part, supply and demand. Worldwide demand for copper has dramatically increased, and supply hasn't been able to keep up. That has sent copper prices soaring. The price per pound of copper has risen from $.70 in 2003 to $3.20 as of Monday. That's a more than 350 percent increase.

The city of Wichita and the state legislature have put tougher laws into place in the past few years. Those include legislation to make some metal thefts felonies rather than misdemeanors and a law in Wichita that forces scrap metal dealers to ask for ID and other personal information.

But local business leaders say it appears those laws have done little to deter thieves trying to capitalize on the increased price of copper. And, the thefts are beginning to take their toll.

Copper thefts are costing businesses like Westar hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For example, as Westar repairs damage done by the copper thieves, it's replacing the copper with something with no scrap value. But the cost to Westar is high.

"It's more expensive for us to purchase it. It takes special equipment for our crews to install and it's a lot more time consuming," VenJohn said.

These are costs that he says that may ultimately trickle down to you.

"That (cost) has to be passed on," VenJohn said.

VenJohn says Westar is asking for the public's help. He says some of the thefts have happened just steps away from busy streets and homes. Westar urges you to call police if you see anyone at a substation who does not have a marked Westar vehicle and who does not have proper safety gear on.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Westar officials believe copper thieves who did about $200,000 worth of damage at one of their sites Saturday morning may be blind, deaf or seriously injured.

The thief or thieves caused a power outage in southeast Wichita. About 1500 people lost power but Westar employees say the bigger issue is safety.

Westar manager Doug VenJohn says they have a problem that keeps getting worse and they can't figure out why it's gotten so out of control.

"I don't know what's caused this sudden rush in copper theft,” Manager of substation maintenance for Westar, Doug VenJohn said.

They only counted about three or four copper thefts at local sub stations for the entire year in 2012. So far this year, they've had about 50.

"Dramatic increase this year in years past, we've seen a few isolated cases of copper theft. This year it's been astronomical,” VenJohn said.

Not only have they seen more thefts, VenJohn says the thieves are getting more reckless.

"Actually going into our substations. Actually going in there and touching high voltage equipment to take a chance that they could get a few more pounds of copper for theft,” VenJohn said.

Saturday morning for example, VenJohn says copper thieves caused an explosion when they broke into the substation on south Rock and tried to steal copper.

"They cut copper free from our equipment and ultimately when they did that they opened up a circuit and created a large explosion an arc that created a fire,” VenJohn said.

VenJohn says whoever was stealing the copper is most likely seriously injured. He says they easily could have been killed.

Police haven't found the thief or thieves yet, but they've asked local hospitals to call them if anyone comes in with electric shock injuries.

To try to battle the growing number of copper thefts at their sites, Westar has made some changes. They've started using a different kind of wire that has no scrap value what so ever. They're also working to add more lights and cameras around their sub stations and at some sites they have even hired a security guard.

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