The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

November 7, 2013

Chiefs: Copper thieves risking lives

By Melissa Klaric
Herald Staff Writer

SHARON — Police are asking for help to catch copper thieves who took a big risk pulling pipe from vacant houses in Sharon.

In the past week, someone ripped out copper piping from two empty houses where the natural gas is still turned on, police Chief Michael Menster said.

“They ripped out the flexible gas line which goes into the hot water heater and dryer,” Menster said. “Gas leaked into the house. This causes a pretty dangerous situation.”

That was the case Oct. 29 in the 400 block of Baldwin Avenue. The owner returned to the house to pick up items and smelled natural gas.

On Tuesday, National Fuel Gas Distribution Corp. responded to a call from a neighbor who smelled gas at a vacant house in the 1300 block of Glenwood Avenue, said Karen Merkel, an NFG spokeswoman.

“We are concerned about a possible explosion,” Menster said. “That’s why we urge people – especially those who have vacant or abandoned homes next door – to be extra vigilant.”

The person police are looking for also ripped out the water heater from the vacant house on Glenwood, causing the basement to flood.

Thefts of flexible gas lines have not been reported anywhere else in NFG’s service territory, Merkel said. NFG serves 732,000 customers in northwestern Pennsylvania and western New York.

“Until a decade ago, flexible gas lines were made of corrugated steel but now are plastic,” Merkel said.

Even if the stolen gas line was made of steel, its scrap value would be tiny, she added.

“They’re stealing anything metal they can get their hands on,” fire Chief Terry Whalen said.

Menster said he thinks there are some components inside the water meter made of brass or precious metals that are worth quite a bit of money.

The smell of natural gas brought police, firefighters and the gas company out to the two houses up for sale in those neighborhoods.

“People and firefighters could die needlessly from someone stealing copper wire,” Whalen said. “All you need is one spark and the whole thing would explode.”

Mercer County District Attorney Robert G. Kochems said that in addition to burglary charges and other related charges, depending on the circumstances, those involved could be charged with risking a catastrophe and arson.   

Whalen said the best thing people can do is to take steps to winterize the house.

“Shutting off the water and gas is the safest thing to do. Have them shut the gas off at the street,” Whalen said. “A house can be winterized, there are companies that do it.”

Whalen said if you put your house up for sale, talk to the bank or a Realtor who deals with this all the time.

“It’s very serious business when people are cutting gas lines,” Whalen said. “An innocent person can walk in, turn on the light ...”

When called to the Sharon houses, firefighters made sure the buildings were properly ventilated and the gas company shut off the gas at street, Whalen said.

Police have been canvassing the scrap yards in the area and have made them aware of the problem.

Menster asked residents to call Sharon police department with any information.

“If you see something suspicious, call 911,” Menster said. “It’s always best to have us come check it out just to be sure.”

Herald Business Editor Michael Roknick contributed to this story.