Vandalism at Co-ops Knocks Out Power, Destroys Equipment

Electric cooperatives in different parts of the country are dealing with a similar problem—vandalism.

Recent gunfire targeted at co-op equipment in Michigan has caused more than $250,000 in damage and outages, while a copper thief hampered restoration following a severe storm at a co-op in Tennessee.

In both cases, the co-ops are working with law enforcement, offering rewards for information that leads to arrests and, above all, keeping members and the public informed about the consequences of vandalizing vital equipment.

A pole-mounted transformer shows the damage from one of many gunfire incidents in the territory of HomeWorks Tri-County Electric Cooperative. (Photo Courtesy: HomeWorks Tri-County EC)

“Intentionally damaging electric infrastructure is a serious felony offense,” said Chris O’Neill, CEO of HomeWorks Tri-County Electric Cooperative. In the last year, the Portland, Michigan-based co-op has recorded 14 separate firearms incidents across three counties, leading to the massive losses.

“Providing safe and reliable electricity to our members is our top priority, and we take anything that disrupts our ability to do that very seriously,” O’Neill said.

HomeWorks is working with the Michigan State Police and local law enforcement and is offering a $10,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest and conviction of those responsible.

The vandalism occurred on regulators, transformers and other equipment in Clinton, Eaton and Ionia counties, causing outages for members and necessitating extra work for line crews. 

The co-op has set up a page on its website with a graphic that illustrates the incident. “We also have gotten a lot of press coverage in the area, so we’re hopeful that some leads will result from that,” said Charly Markwart, communications manager for HomeWorks.

Investigators suspect HomeWorks has been targeted intentionally, Markwart said, since it has been far more frequently affected by firearm vandalism than other area utilities during the past year.

“It is important to share this information as widely as possible,” she said. “We have not identified a pattern so far, but we are asking anyone who hears gunshots overnight to report them to their county’s non-emergency line, and anyone with information on the crimes to report it to Crime Stoppers.”

The vandalism at Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, was slightly different but no less troubling. Following a severe storm in May that put a substation in the dark, one or more people cut down a pole and stole copper wire.

In the middle of power restoration, thieves cut down a utility pole and stole copper wire from Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative. (Photo Courtesy: Sequachee Valley EC

That increased the restoration time in a hard-to-reach area in Grundy County. Kari Cook Crouse, vice president of communications and business strategy, said the co-op turned to social media to explain why the area in which the vandalism occurred was facing an even longer period without power.

By publicizing the incident, Sequachee Valley said it generated compassion for lineworkers who thought they had brought members back online, only to find they needed to set new poles.

“The support from our community was more than I could have expected. Within minutes we had hundreds of shares on Facebook, experiencing more positive feelings from our community than I ever could have imagined,” Crouse said.

Sequachee Valley is offering a reward for information that leads to an arrest and has received countless leads through its outreach, Crouse added.

“We followed up on many of them and are still working on a few very promising ones, but no arrest has been made,” she said. “While we haven’t identified the thief, the goodwill and positive support we received from our community has been tremendous.”

Steven Johnson is a contributing writer for NRECA.