A Western New York problem: Substations targeted for copper

A rash of copper thefts at power substations is causing damage and concern.

Thieves have been targeting National Grid and New York State Gas & Electric substations in numerous counties, with recent reports in Genesee and Wyoming of at least five such thefts.

Genesee County had two break-ins in Darien and Corfu, Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Jerome Brewster said.

“We believe they are doing it at night,” he said. “They get in and rip out the ground wire.”

Wyoming County has had three thefts at substations, Undersheriff David Linder said.

“It’s a Western New York problem,” Linder said. “It’s everywhere. It’s dangerous and costly. They do more damage to the substation than the amount of money they get for the copper.”

The danger was highlight in the horrific death of a Perry man last summer.

Andrew Mower, 36, died after he climbed onto a live transformer and grabbed a charged line. He suffered severe burns and died a week later. A man with him, Eugene Matteson, 25, was sentenced to state prison for his part in the copper theft and more than $125,000 damage to the substation.

The recent spate of thefts has officials at National Grid taking notice.

“It’s a concern, for two reasons primarily,” company spokesman Stephen Brady said. “First and foremost is safety. It’s a very dangerous thing to do, cutting copper away from a working substation. There’s no way of knowing just by looking if its energized.”

The second reason, he said, is reliability of service.

“We haven’t had too many problems with that,” he said. “The damage has been found and repaired quickly.”

National Grid works daily with police to seek increased patrols around substations and ensure damage is found as soon as possible.

All substations are locked and fenced in.

“It’s more of a safety issue but that’s increasingly changing to more of a security issue,” he said.

Brady said such thefts “run in streaks.”

“We will have a series of them, and then it will stop,” he said. “It depends on the price of copper. We’ve been working with scrap yard owners investigating ways to mark our copper so they know what to look for when someone comes in.

“Unfortunately, it’s a growing business and we have to redouble our efforts to make sure people stay safe and we have reliable substations.”

Police believe all of the thefts are happening at night. Anyone who sees suspicious activity at substations should immediately call 9-1-1.