DTE Energy CSO: Copper Theft Still a Problem

Michael Lynch, CSO of Michigan utility DTE Energy, offers an update on the world of metal theft and on Michigan's problems and progress.

In February 2007, CSO exposed the epidemic and security threat of copper theft. At the time, Michael Lynch, CSO of Michigan utility DTE Energy, gave CSO a first-hand look at the physical security challenge facing CSOs like himself. He recently sat down with CSO for another look inside the world of metal theft and an update on Michigan's problems and progress.

A dropped transformer, hanging by its wire conductor.

CSO: How does the metal theft situation at DTE Energy today compare with what was going on when the original story was first reported in the fall of 2006?

Michael Lynch: It has accelerated. Last year we had over 400 incidents of energized conductor theft. That means that every day, multiple times a day, someone was stealing live copper wires. Last year it cost us well over $10 million to restore service when the wires were stolen.

CSO: What measures have you been taking to combat metal theft?

Lynch: We have had a terrific response from the Detroit police department. They recognize that this is not just a nuisance crime; it is a serious crime that's attacking the infrastructure of the city. It is also affecting public safety. If someone takes down a wire and we don't immediately know about it and someone steps on it, the result could be a serious injury. With law enforcement engaged, we've established a task force that meets once a week. It's made up of representatives from the electric industry, communications industry and the police department.

CSO: What are some of the initiatives you're working on?

Lynch: We go door to door, talking to people, sharing information and raising awareness. We do some private patrolling in the hopes of catching people either stealing the wire or burning the sheathing off to get to the copper. We give $1,000 for information that leads to the arrest of someone stealing our wire. Police conducted roughly a dozen raids in the last year. We also give a reward of $2,500 for information that leads to the arrest of anyone buying the copper illegally. These middlemen typically pay thieves half of the actual value of the copper, and sell it to the scrap yard. We were able to shut down one such operation entirely through a tip we received from that reward program.

CSO: Where does copper theft lie on your list of security concerns today?

Lynch: From an operational standpoint, it's the most significant threat we have.

CSO: What needs to happen in order for you to feel like you're not constantly playing catch-up?

Lynch: We don't have a problem catching criminals; the problem is what happens when they get in front of a judge. I was part of a team of prosecutors and police that recently met with a group of circuit court judges about the issue, so we are making progress. The legislation is helpful, but it has to come down to what happens when the judge hits his gavel.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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