Copper thefts turn out lights in parts of St. Paul

A street lamp
A street lamp in St. Paul's Merriam Park that was hit by copper thieves. With copper prices at an all time high, thieves breaking into the lamps to steal copper.
Peter Cox | MPR News

On a recent night in St. Paul's Merriam Park, all the street lamps were on, but in the park itself, the lamps were dark. Their base plates were removed and all the wires had been cut out.

It’s another example of a growing problem in St. Paul: With copper prices at the highest they've been in history, thieves have been breaking open the city's street lamps to take the copper wiring.

For neighbors like Ashley Grundstrom and Travis Nelson, it means their nightly walks are a little darker these days.

"It makes it so that we can't really see very much at night. If we're trying to bike you can't really see the path,” Grundstrom said. “You can't see, pretty much anywhere that you're walking unless the moon's out. It definitely limits the activities that we can do. But we still come out here."

A map of St. Paul
A still of a Google Map made by St. Paul Public Works showing where copper wire thefts from street lamps have happened over the last two years.
City of St. Paul | Google Maps

Copper prices have never been as high as they've been this year. It's hit nearly $5 a pound.

And that means thieves have been stealing it to sell to metal scrap yards. For St. Paul, that's been a big issue, because many of its lantern style street lamps, the wiring and access to wiring is right at ground level. That high price of copper has hit St. Paul double over the last couple of years, both with an increase in theft and an increase in the cost of repairs.

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"In 2020, we spent about $105,000, to replace wire stolen from the streetlights. And last year, in 2021 It was $295,000. So again, we are seeing a ramp up and an increase over the last couple of years,” said Lisa Hiebert, public information officer for St. Paul Public Works.

This year, they've already spent $25,000, and Hiebert says, the warmer weather is just getting started.

Thieves have been targeting areas that might not see a lot of traffic, or are outside the view of houses — places like inner areas of parks, walking paths, like along Shepherd Road and the roads around Lake Phalen.

It's become such an issue that public works and the city's parks department are trying different systems to stop thieves. They've set alarms, branded wires and even welded some housing for the wiring shut. Some steps have worked, others haven't.

"Unfortunately, the more efforts we try, people are still getting in there. They're using machinery to open them up sometimes vehicles and then they're, and they're doing a lot more than just pulling the wire, they're actually damaging the light fixtures themselves, which makes the repair and the cost that much more expensive," Hiebert said.

A street lamp
A street lamp in St. Paul's Merriam Park that was hit by copper thieves. With copper prices at an all time high, thieves have been stealing the copper wire from the lamps. The city has been trying several different security measures to try to deter thefts.
Peter Cox

People have been reporting a lot of lamps out across the city, but the city is asking people to call the cops if they see wire being stolen or something suspicious.

"One thing the public can do is if they see somebody out there working on lights and there's not a city vehicle around, you know, call 911. Let the authorities know. We want people to continue reporting damage to letting us know if they're letting the police know if they see something suspicious going on," said Liz McDonald with St. Paul’s parks department.

St. Paul also has set up a website for people to report when street lights are out. And, in some areas of the city, they've started to turn on their lights all day long in order to deter thieves from trying to rip out wire from live circuits.