Nova Scotia Power, Bell Aliant see recent increase in copper wire theft

HALIFAX — News this week of arrests in connection with copper wire thefts in New Brunswick was welcomed Tuesday by a telecommunications official, who says challenges remain in battling a persistent and costly problem.

Dana Lohnes, Bell Aliant’s director of field operations in Atlantic Canada, said his company has seen further thefts in the Fredericton area over the last few days, adding to a recent spike.

“The stealing of copper wire is not necessarily new, but it does seem to have significantly picked up since late summer heading into the fall,” Lohnes said in an interview Tuesday.

On Monday, RCMP reported the arrests of three men and a woman in connection with several copper wire thefts in the Fredericton and Oromocto areas in October. Police said the thefts are estimated to have resulted in $1.4 million in losses to businesses, homes and government departments.

Lohnes said Bell Aliant had seen 40 incidents of theft and vandalism in New Brunswick alone since the beginning of October when it typically sees around 40 such incidents a year. He added that he’s not exactly sure why there’s been an increase.

“In New Brunswick, the rules around the recycling of metals seem to be a little more lax … but that’s been the case for the last number of years,” he said. “I can’t really put my finger on why it’s been in the last number of months that we’ve seen this huge (theft) uptick.”

Copper wire and parts have long been a favourite target of thieves because of the price they can fetch from scrap metal dealers. Copper prices have been high throughout most of 2022 and as of Tuesday the metal was valued at $5.19 a pound.

Lohnes said dealing with theft and damage leads to service interruptions for internet, TV and landline phone customers, while his company needs to pour time and resources into making repairs. The Oct. 29 thefts affected about 850 customers who lost service for most of that day.

Bell Aliant has installed surveillance cameras and alarms around areas considered hot spots for thieves and stepped up patrols by company and private security companies, Lohnes said. The company also has a central monitoring centre for its system that can reach out directly to the RCMP when trouble occurs.

“But it’s a bit like finding a needle in a haystack,” he added. “A lot of these areas they (thieves) are going to are wooded areas. We are trying to be tactical in monitoring.”

Meanwhile, copper thieves also caused a power outage for about 4,000 Nova Scotia Power customers in Colchester and Cumberland counties last weekend. Similar outages were caused by thefts in Halifax last month and in Parrsboro earlier this year.

Matt Drover, the utility’s senior director of transmission and distribution operations, said the outages resulted from a recent increase in copper thefts from its network of substations.

“We’ve had a break-in almost once a month pretty much back to the summer,” Drover said.

He said power is usually interrupted by the company so that its technicians can safely conduct repairs and replace damaged wiring and parts. “So the actual act of stealing the wire doesn’t cause the outage,” Drover said.

Nova Scotia Power is also dealing with the theft problem by increasing video surveillance and by replacing copper wire with less valuable kinds of wiring. “Hopefully that will prevent people from wanting to break into our substations,” he said.

Regardless, Drover said the act of breaking into a substation is inherently dangerous.

“People are taking their lives into their hands when they’re taking this wire, it can have thousands of volts of electricity on it,” he said. “It’s extremely risky to them to be doing this.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2022.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press