In Jason Sponaugle’s home state of West Virginia, his copper welding cables can last as long as six years.
Here in Washington County’s booming Marcellus Shale natural gas fields, however, Sponaugle said he and other welders are lucky to keep their welding leads from the hands of thieves for three days before they disappear.
“When you go to replace them, you’re not the only guy in line,” said Sponaugle, owner of B&C Welding in Harrison County, W.Va.
While state police said Monday theft cases overall have been on the increase in the county, Chartiers Township police Chief Jim Horvath said the Marcellus Shale industry has become a frequent victim of copper theft.
“That’s constant,” Horvath said, noting copper equipment has been stolen from each of the many well pads in Chartiers. “It’s everywhere.”
Jason Gregg, who works at Welding Equipment & Repair Inc. in Chartiers, said once a week “there’s someone coming in to replace their stolen leads.”
“It’s been going on for a while,” Gregg said. “It seems like they get hit all at once.”
Sponaugle said the thieves appear to be staking out the hotels where Marcellus workers are making their temporary homes, and that he had $760 worth of supplies stolen last week. He said some of the welders now take their tools and equipment into their hotel rooms because the thieves come armed with metal grinders to remove hinges from locked tool boxes.
The people committing these crimes are bold and have been known to steal tools and supplies from welders’ vehicles while they are inside fast-food restaurants having lunch, Sponaugle said.
The stolen copper is taken to scrap yards and exchanged for cash.
These crimes have been taking place in every municipality with hotels catering to the Marcellus industry, Horvath said.
He said Chartiers officers increased their patrols of hotel parking lots, but it’s easy for the thieves to hide by ducking behind a large truck.
“It’s not hard to figure out, because most of the hotels are full of these trucks, and then the rats come out.”