One morning this past December, Peter Livingston went outside to walk his dog before work and was startled to discover that all the streetlights near his Central District home had gone dark. Weeks later, the lights were still out, so he emailed Seattle City Light’s general manager, wondering why the utility had apparently abandoned several blocks of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.
“This is a serious public safety issue,” the homeowner wrote. “Shame! Fix it.”
He didn’t know that other Seattle neighborhoods were also in the dark and that City Light was struggling to keep up with an increasingly costly problem.
“I got a call from the guy in charge of streetlights,” Livingston recalled. “He told me the underground cables had been cut and stolen.”
Copper wire thieves have hit Seattle’s streetlight network more than 40 times in the past year, ripping out wires at locations across the city at an unprecedented rate and wreaking havoc that City Light expects to cost more than $1 million, according to spokeswoman Julie Moore.
The thieves pry open the curbside “handholes” that are located in the ground near the streetlights and that City Light workers use to access the cables. They cut the wires, pull them out and sell the copper to recyclers.
They’ve stolen miles of wires from blocks with streetlights that use underground cables (other streetlights use overhead wires), overwhelming City Light’s streetlight crews and leaving neighborhoods dim for months.
The utility previously incurred only a handful of wire thefts each year, and it documented all streetlight outages the same way, Moore said in a written statement. Now City Light is using a special work order to track theft-related outages and repairs.
Lights at athletic fields also have been hit hard in the past year. Copper wire thefts at 16 sites have cost the city more than $143,000, according to Seattle Parks and Recreation. Jefferson Park and Rainier Playfield have been struck multiple times. No one seems to know why there have been more thefts recently, given that prices for copper have been declining.
“Seattle City Light recognizes the importance of streetlights to residents and those using the roadways,” Moore said. “We are doing everything possible to efficiently and expeditiously address these outages, including working weekends, seeking temporary fixes and exploring prevention measures.”
Repairs sap time and money
Driving around Seattle, City Light streetlight crew worker Tosh Sharp scans for open handhole lids and for the rubber casings that the thieves strip off the stolen wires. “That’s how you know they’ve been out there,” he said, noting that the discarded casings look like skins shed by snakes.
City Light has eight streetlight crews, each with two workers. Sharp was particularly busy last year because most of the thefts happened south of downtown, where his crew is assigned. Streetlights under the Spokane Street Viaduct and the West Seattle Bridge were hit repeatedly, and multiple locations in Sodo and Rainier Valley were targeted.
Residents have told Sharp how some thieves operate. During the day and wearing work vests to trick passersby, they first cut the wires. Once the lights have been disabled, they return at night to steal the wires under the cover of darkness. Sharp thinks City Light was slammed in 2019 because people realized the underground cables were ripe for plucking.
“You can call the police, but they have other things to do,” he said. “By the time they show up, the guys are long gone.”
New wires themselves don’t cost all that much. But installing them and repairing broken connections is a huge time and money expense, and it pulls City Light’s streetlight crews away from routine maintenance work and new customer connections, Moore said.
In some cases, the plastic pipes that protect the wires have collapsed and must be replaced. That can involve excavation, which requires permits, said Terry Blankenship, another streetlight crew worker. There are sites that have been under repair since last April, and City Light has begun stringing wires overhead at certain locations to get lights working in the meantime.
The utility hasn’t been tracking the number of lights involved in each outage. But Martin Luther King Jr. Way South has perhaps been the hardest hit, with an estimated 100 lights knocked out along various segments, Moore said. Repairing some outages means scheduling multiple crews.
“It’s just a long process,” Blankenship said, kneeling beside a handhole to reach a tangle of snipped wires. “Then we go on to the next project.”
At sites where thefts have occurred, City Light is locking up handholes or welding them shut and, in some cases, placing concrete blocks over them.
Those measures should keep thieves out. They’ll also complicate maintenance work. “We’ll need to break the weld, make the repair and weld it up again,” Blankenship said.
Seattle leaders didn’t increase City Light’s streetlight repair budget for 2020. The wire thefts mostly occurred late in 2019, after the utility had submitted its budget requests, Moore said.
Parks and Recreation also is taking steps to deter wire theft, spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin said. She declined to share details, saying she didn’t want to tip off the thieves.
“They’ll chop it up”
Copper wire theft is hardly a new phenomenon. Washington adopted special laws long ago to limit the stolen metal market, said Ryan Glant, president at Pacific Iron & Metal in Sodo. In 2014, a King County jury convicted a Seattle man of stealing 55,000 pounds of copper wiring from Sound Transit’s light rail tracks.
“The inherent value that these metals have make them a target,” said Glant.
Last year’s surge in streetlight incidents has pushed Seattle authorities to take another look at the problem. City Councilmember Lisa Herbold in November asked the police department to create a more comprehensive approach for tracking such crimes. She also asked the department to review how cops are enforcing the state’s scrapping laws.
Last updated in 2013, the state laws say recycling companies must keep detailed purchase records, including the name of the employee involved, the name of the seller, the seller’s driver’s license number and the plate number of the vehicle used to deliver the metal.
The companies can pay only by check unless they take a photo of the metal, in which case they can pay up to $30 in cash. They’re supposed to check a “no-buy list” of people with burglary, robbery and theft convictions.
Pacific Iron & Metal is a large company that buys from electricians, plumbers and even from City Light. “We do our part to make sure we aren’t any easy outlet” for metal thieves, Glant said.
But weeding out lawbreakers isn’t always simple, others in the business point out. The person who shows up with copper wire may not be the same person who stole it, said Dave McElroy, manager at The Recycling Depot in Georgetown. Many sellers arrive on bicycles, rather than in vehicles with license plates, he said.
“They’ll chop it up and take 30 pounds here, 30 pounds there,” said McElroy, raising his voice over the backhoe smashing metal together in his small scrapyard. “They’ll have somebody else take it in … We just don’t know.”
Some people may be stealing copper because they need money for drugs. Some scrap collectors may be homeless. But West Seattle Recycling’s Jonathan Howe said he’s bothered by negative assumptions about his customers.
“They think anyone coming here must be a thief. That’s not the case,” he said. “Most of these people are pretty honest. They have their routes where they go into Dumpsters and get their material legitimately. They’re making only $20 or $50 a day. They’re trying to survive.”
West Seattle Recycling pays up to $1.30 a pound for copper wire.
“Smart” lights experiment
Scrapyard managers say the best way for Seattle to combat the problem is to let them know when thefts occur and what material to watch for. Such reports by the police have ebbed recently, and it’s been years since the cops have distributed an updated no-buy list, McElroy and Howe said.
“We didn’t even know about this,” Howe said of City Light’s crisis. “I’ll go out of my way to cooperate with the police. But please let me know.”
Not until Glant met with City Light in November did the utility learn about Scrap Theft Alert, a notification service the state requires licensed recycling companies to sign up for, he said, adding, “We had to educate City Light.”
The utility’s new policy is to report all incidents to the police and to Scrap Theft Alert, Moore said.
The police department has ramped up recycling company inspections, and burglary detectives are investigating the City Light wire thefts, police spokesman Jonah Spangenthal-Lee said. The department is supposed to report back to Herbold soon.
Seattle residents can help by reporting new outages online, Moore said. Legitimate utility workers should show their badges when asked; be wearing City Light apparel; and be driving City Light vehicles, she said.
City Light engineers are looking into anti-theft strategies used by other cities and plan to experiment with remote-control lights this year, Moore said.
“The lights will transmit ‘health’ reports back to the utility,” she said. “This means we will know when a light is out without having to wait for a customer report. The pilot will test this technology on up to 500 streetlights.”
The lights are back on along Martin Luther King Way Jr. South, but some Seattle residents are still in the dark. City Light doesn’t have a “standard turnaround time” for streetlight outages, Moore said.
“Each incident has its own unique circumstances,” she said. “We recognize the importance to public safety and are doing what we can to restore the lights as quickly as possible.”
Seattle City Light accepts reports of streetlight outages online (seattle.gov/light/streetlight/), via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by phone (206 684-7056). The utility asks for the 7-digit number on the light pole and the name of the street where the light is located.