VERMILLION, S.D. -- A unique kind of darkness has been invading rural areas in recent months: urban mining.
Thieves, who generally perpetrate their crimes under cover of darkness, have been stripping isolated farm places and sometimes homes in small towns of copper wire which they sell to area scrap metal dealers.
Concerns are mounting that thieves are not only risking their lives and causing thousands of dollars of damage to homes and businesses, but they also are endangering the lives of others.
The recent death of Earl Thelander, an 80-year-old Onawa, Iowa, man, who died from injuries suffered in an explosion that followed the removal of copper gas pipes coming into a house he owned validates those concerns.
"There's a reward for anyone who can provide information about who did this," said Jody Ewing, Thelander's stepdaughter. "I never heard of urban mining before this happened. It's so senseless."
Leo Powell, operations manager for Clay-Union Electric Co-op at Vermillion, wonders if thieves in southeast South Dakota have at least some knowledge of how electrical power works.
"They're putting themselves in some very dangerous situations in order to steal the wire, things a trained electrician wouldn't do because it's so unsafe" Powell said. "It makes me wonder if they actually worked for a power company. They either know what they're doing and taking the risk anyway, or they're mighty lucky."
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Powell cited the instance of a Kansas man who broke into a substation and was electrocuted because of his lack of knowledge about how electrical lines work.
"He was cutting ground wires off inside the substation and he was killed," Powell said. "Some of the situations we've found, it's hard to believe people would be that lucky. They almost have to know how electricity flows through the lines."
Powell recommended that farmers be cautious if they find an isolated farmstead suddenly without power. In some cases, thieves leave dangerous situations behind when they dismantle electric poles and transformers.
It's been about eight years since copper theft was an issue in southeast South Dakota. Rising copper prices drove the thefts then, just as they are now.
"Copper sells for about $3 a pound," Powell said. "To put that into perspective, we paid about $900 for a transformer last year at this time. Now we're paying $1,500."
It's not uncommon for thieves to steal as much as half-a-mile of copper wire.
In some cities, they steal copper elements from air conditioners. They begin at the end of a block and steal the same components from every homeowner on the block. Their actions don't net them large sums of money; however, the damage they cause can run into thousands of dollars for homeowners and businesses.
"Scrap buyers in South Dakota are required to obtain a signature from sellers declaring that the wire they're selling isn't stolen," Powell said. "Law enforcement is doing all it can to monitor homes and businesses, too. People should just be cautious if they find a situation where their power is suddenly out."