An Eastern European criminal gang has been identified as masterminding a rise in thefts of high voltage ESB power lines which are cut down in rural Ireland and sold for scrap.
Gardaí say some of the criminals involved are highly specialised and often fly into the Ireland from the western Balkans for short periods to assist in thefts.
There have been 48 power line thefts in Ireland this year alone, accounting for some 40 tonnes of material which could have a value of up to €240,000.
Since 2012, about 140km of cable has been cut down, leaving a repair and replacement cost of €27 million, far in excess of the actual material value.
The dangerous practice has increased in the last year due to the value of copper which sells for between €5,000 and €6,000 a tonne and which, in some cases, is believed to be exported from the country by black-market scrap dealers.
A number of arrests have been made, although Assistant Commissioner Derek Byrne said these were “foot soldiers” with much of the gang still at large, including organisers.
“There is a level of sophistication involved in this. There may be indigenous [criminal] connections but . . . the persons that we suspect of primary involvement at the moment are certainly west Balkan crime groupings, some with convictions in the west Balkan countries,” he said at a Crimestoppers campaign launch on Tuesday for a greater public awareness .
Home-made equipment is used to climb ESB towers and remove the wires. The material is scouted, cut, “rolled”, and collected in that order, said Mr Byrne. Most of the activity tends to occur late at night off the road in rural areas, he added.
“It’s a big business at the moment, it’s a highly dangerous business committed by a sophisticated and small group of persons,” said Mr Byrne.
There has been an increase in regulatory compliance among scrap dealers since the establishment of the National Metal Theft Forum in 2011, a multi-stakeholder group which gathers information focusing on illegal activity.
“But it would seem that there are still a small number of persons operating illegally and if anybody knows of these scrap dealers that are operating outside of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] guidelines, well we would be very pleased to hear about that,” said Mr Byrne.
The theft of scrap metal is not new, particularly since a rise in its value over recent years. Criminals have also set their sights on beer kegs, goal posts, road signs, letter boxes and manhole covers, among other easily accessible sources.
However, Senan Colleran, head of distribution at ESB Networks, said the targeting of power lines is now “the most relevant emerging crime in Europe” with a “huge ramp up” in activity in the last 12 months.
Apart from a disproportionate repair cost, the theft causes danger to the public and ESB staff in the form of downed live power cables and fires – one farmer lost an entire barley crop – and the loss of power to customers.
As well as overhead cable damage, the company has suffered 43 break-ins to substations this year resulting in lost power to 27,000 customers and 81,000 hours of supply.
Members of the public are urged to contact the Garda, the ESB or the Crimestoppers confidential line on 1800-250025 in relation to any suspicious activity.