ESB blaze just latest episode in copper theft epidemic

Senan Colleran of the ESB calls it "the biggest emerging crime in Europe"...

“These people are putting their lives hugely at risk”.

So said Senan Colleran, Head of Distribution and Customer Services at ESB Networks, of the latest lot of thieves with their eye on copper wire. Talking on Lunchtime, a dismayed Colleran gave details of the Sunday evening break-in that caused a "very significant" fire at a substation in Inchicore, Dublin.

The fire resulted in 120,000 ESB customers lost power, as well as Tallaght hospital. While most got their power back within 10 minutes, it took 40 firefighters some five hours to put out the blaze. Colleran also noted that it would take "many millions and many months" to repair the station.

"The value of the copper would have been very small in comparison".

A figure of €10 million has been estimated.

 

The number of individuals stealing copper and scrap metals has skyrocketed in the past five or six years, since gangs realised the rising price of commodities - due to falling production - could offer a way to beat recessionary times across Europe.  Other metals in demand are aluminium, lead and increasingly platinum, palladium and rhodium.

As Colleran put it: "this is the biggest emerging crime in Europe".

Across the continent, railway infrastructure in particular has been hit hard. In 2010 alone, five rail operators reported millions of euros in damages and a massive 10,000 hours of train delays as a result of copper wire theft.

Closer to home, 64 feet of surplus railway line was taken from New Ross' Campile Station in January 2011. A spokesperson for An Garda Síochána told the New Ross Echo:

"This wasn't an opportunist crime and would have taken time to carry out".

That same year, the Gardaí established the Metal Theft Forum, a multi-agency group bringing together those worst hit by increasing copper thefts in such sectors as transport, utility, recycling and communications, in the hope of slowing the growing rate of thefts.

In spite of this, Crimestoppers has said that over 150 kilometres of copper, with a value of €3 million, have been stolen since 2012. The replacement cost to the ESB was €28 million. The ESB reported over 100 incidents in 2013 alone.

Last August, Gardaí special units arrested a Romanian gang who were climbing electrical poles and employing long handheld cutters in an attempt to steal wiring over bogland in Offaly. Gardaí called the gang "highly mobile", "sophisticated" and also operating in Clare, Galway and Tipperary.

Incidents with overhead power cables are considered to be particularly dangerous as the wires are live. 

The majority of copper wire thefts in Ireland are carried out by crime groups from West Balkan countries. Metal dealers have generally been co-operating with the authorities, though some have become involved in the illegal trade.

Aside from the financial damage, the activity in general is extremely risky for both the criminals and the public.

One fatality and three serious injuries have been linked to the thefts in Ireland thus far.

Speaking at Crimestoppers’ launch of a metal theft confidential helpline last year, Senan Colleran said: 

"The theft of live copper lines has been an issue for ESB Networks for some time.

"Not only are the perpetrators of this illegal activity putting their lives at risk, they are also endangering the lives of members of the public by leaving potentially unsafe live network after them.

"There is the extreme danger of severe injury or fatality when attempting to steal live electricity lines or metal from ESB Networks High Voltage substations.

"This theft results in the loss of electricity supply to customers and causes significant inconvenience to our customers while the repair works are carried out by our crews".

"As well as the public safety issue, this illegal activity also results in significant costs to ESB Networks in repairing the damaged electricity network and these costs are ultimately borne by all electricity customers".

A fresh Crimestoppers and Garda investigation has now been launched, with the public being asked to do their part by watching out for suspicious activity and supplying the Gardaí with any information they may have.