Brazen thieves risk electrocution to strip substation, other city facilities

Copper cables cut under the docks at Sarnia Bay Marina. City of Sarnia Photo

Troy Shantz

Thieves stripping copper and other metals from municipal facilities have cost Sarnia $1 million so far this year, the city solicitor says.

“It is a major problem,” an angry Sutheat Tim told The Journal. “I mean, one million dollars. All taxpayers have to chip in and help cover this.”

The most recent target was a city substation, where someone sawed through metal sheathing before hacking out wiring with an axe on Oct. 24.

Staff responded to an alarm around 3 a.m. and, after seeing the damage from what appeared to be an electrical explosion, wondered if they’d find a body nearby, said development manager Mike Berkvens.

“It actually did fuse a bit of the metal off the axe to the wires,” he said, noting repairs to the substation took several days.

Though it was the first heist targeting a substation he fears it won’t be the last.

Whoever was involved put their lives at risk by trying to extract electrical wire that was still live, Tim said.

“People are unnecessarily putting their lives in danger.“

Over the past few years, metal thieves have angered residents by doing major damage to homes, construction sites, monuments and now municipal facilities.

In April, an organized team stripped heavy copper electrical cables from the Sarnia Bay Marina. Damage to the docks and pavilion cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and took two months to repair.

Six city properties have been hit this year. Though covered by insurance, the claims increase deductible and premium costs.

“Somebody, somewhere is buying that stuff,” said Tim.

The city is working closely with investigators, he said, and have their eye on a handful of buyers in the commercial metal recycling business.

The materials taken are easily identifiable and should raise red flags at the facilities capable of processing them, Tim said.

“By turning a blind eye to the purchase of stolen material… you’re subject to criminal prosecution.”

Security measures are under review and more surveillance cameras are likely on the way, he said. And a public awareness campaign is in the works that will encourage citizens and businesses to report suspicious activity.

People should be on the lookout for anyone carrying metal or pipes by hand, or towing it behind a bicycle, he added. Even if an arrest isn’t immediate, police can document the occurrence and cross check it with other thefts.