Dicing with death... the gang hacking down power lines to steal copper cable
A well-organised but reckless criminal gang is believed to be behind a spate of potentially lethal electricity cable thefts.
A recent series of brazen attacks on the electricity network has resulted in disruption to homeowners and extensive damage to the system.
And those behind the thefts have been told they are risking their lives and those of passers-by by hacking into cables carrying tens of thousands of volts of lethal electricity.
Scrapyards were last night urged to play their part in combating the problem, with more stringent measures called for to curb the illicit and potentially deadly trade.
During the latest theft almost a mile of cable was removed after four electricity poles were cut down in Newtownabbey.
The culprits cut the poles, relying on the overhead lines shorting as they hit the ground, potentially electrocuting anybody nearby.
It was the seventh such incident this year after attacks on the power network in Glenarm and Broughshane in Antrim and Stewartstown in Tyrone. Police are investigating whether one gang is responsible.
The thieves steal the cables in order to get the copper wiring they contain.
Brendan Lunney, NIE fault and emergency engineer for the area, said Tuesday's incident in Newtownabbey highlighted the dangers posed.
The gang took down the lines and remove them from the scene in less than an hour.
He said: "We would ask these people to stop and think about what they are doing. They are putting themselves and people in the local area at serious risk of injury or even death. In this particular incident, lines were broken very close to a main road which could have had serious implications for motorists."
Northern Ireland Electricity said there had been 15 such incidents in the past six months.
Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs said scrapyards had a role to play in battling the crime.
The East Antrim representative has launched a Private Member's Bill – the Scrap Metal Dealers (NI) Bill – aimed at tackling the problem.
"It would appear that organised crime gangs are involved in metal theft in Northern Ireland," he said.
"My scrap metal dealers legislation would make it harder for thieves to dispose of their stolen copper cable.
"It would require the identity of those selling scrap metals such as power cables to be recorded. This would increase the likelihood of thieves being caught and so discourage metal theft in the first place."
PSNI Inspector Alan McKeown said: "There is a strong risk of serious injury to those responsible for cutting down the poles, and this extends also to passers-by and livestock."
STORY SO FAR
Over the past six months there have been some 15 incidents of power lines being chopped down by thieves. The high price of the copper within them is behind the spike in the crime. There have been seven such incidents to date this year.