“It’s really like battlefield triage.” Streetlights in St. Paul go dark due to theft of copper wire

Thieves ripping copper wire from street lights

Thieves ripping copper wire from street lights

There are fewer bright lights in Como Park these days, especially after dark.

“So, attack of opportunity, I guess,” says Mary Beth Zorn, from St. Paul. “It’s easy pickings.”

For Zorn and her husband Troy out walking their dogs Tuesday afternoon, there’s no mystery here.

They’ve seen numerous streetlights vandalized, with their copper wiring torn out.

“A lot of these are in various shapes of being taped back up, or being torn apart,” Zorn notes. “Or, if they are put back together, they may not be working.”

How severe is the problem?

The St. Paul Department of Public Works says rewiring and repairs on damaged streetlights cost a half-million dollars last year.

“It’s like a battlefield triage that we’re out there doing,” explains Lisa Hiebert, a DPW spokesperson.  “We’re rewiring and getting these lights up and running, and they’re getting stolen just as fast as we’re rewiring them, unfortunately.”

DPW says it’s unknown how many of those little hatches have been pried open, and the wiring inside cut out and stolen.

Some individual lights have been repaired a dozen times.

“Unfortunately, also, it’s not just a victimless crime, that doesn’t hurt anybody,” Hiebert says. “It really makes our neighborhoods dark, and people feel unsafe.”

For copper thieves, it may be the lure of easy money, with copper worth several dollars a pound.

Ashley Osmek learned that the hard way last summer when the catalytic converter on her car was stolen.  

The devices typically contain platinum, rhodium, and palladium—all considered precious metals.  

“Like, wow, it’s kind of crazy what people will do to make a quick buck,” she declares. “Just through that process, I looked it up, and saw how much that little piece of metal is worth. So, I can’t imagine something like that going around here.”

The Public Works Department says there are about 32,000 light poles citywide.

For park visitors, the lack of light at night is cause for concern.

“I personally would feel a little unsafe. We typically do our walks during the daylight,” she says. “For those who don’t have that option, they’re probably more bummed out than we are, and feel more unsafe as well.”

The city is trying options like using a smaller gauge wire that’s considered less profitable.

Staff are investigating tougher light pole materials and testing out a process called ‘daylighting.’

“So, keeping the streetlights on, which is important because that energizes the electricity through it and hopefully deters theft,” Hiebert says. “I don’t know that copper is worth risking your life to steal wire out of a streetlight. Unfortunately, people can make some money if they get enough wire from the streetlight.”

Solar-powered streetlights present another set of problems, she explains, including an inability to hold consistent power.

“I know lights would have to be retrofitted and there’s a cost there, Hiebert notes. “We really value our tree canopy in St. Paul, so unfortunately, in parks and areas like that, they may not get that full optimization.”    

Another approach would be to try to track down whoever is illegally buying the copper wire.

The DPW says the insulation on wire used in streetlights is marked ‘City of St. Paul.’

But Hiebert says bad characters can simply strip off that outer layer, leaving the bare wire very hard to track.

Her department is asking residents to be patient but also to be cautious if they see anyone who appears to be working on a light pole.

“If there’s not a City of St. Paul vehicle right there, call 911, call the police,” Hiebert says. “The only people authorized to work on city lights are city staff.”

The Zorns say they generally stay out of Como Park during the very early in the morning and late at night.

They hope the city can come up with solutions. “I know that in the evening it might be a little more tricky, just because safety’s always an issue,” Mary Beth Zorn says. “They’re fixing the lights and somebody’s coming through and taking it right away.”