Copper thieves have been repeatedly targeting the substations of a Mississippi co-op, and officials at Pearl River Valley Electric Power Association are hoping local authorities will quickly find the people responsible before they cause more damage.

Kurt Brautigam, Pearl River Valley's manager of member services, said there were groundwire thefts at two of the co-op's substations last week, marking the third time one of those substations had been hit in the past few months. Damage caused by one of the thefts sparked a fire.

The incidents occurred at substations in Forrest and Lamar counties, where the targeted facilities are located in sparsely populated areas and thieves have been able to take advantage of darkness and a lack of overnight vehicle traffic.

"They obviously know what they are doing," said Brautigam, following a theft early Jan. 9. "They are very systematic, and they don't take all of the copper grounding wire. In one recent case they got about 80 percent of what was in the station."

That incident eventually sparked a fire at Pearl River Valley's South Hattiesburg substation, knocking out electricity to about 2,500 of the co-op's meters just before dawn. Crews were able to restore service to affected members within hours.

"These are criminal acts that obviously cause service issues for our members and incur additional cost to the association, but they also create a significant safety issue," said Brautigam. "There was structural damage to the pad that supported one of the station's voltage regulators."

The co-op is working with sheriff's department investigators in both counties and urging members to report any suspicious activity they observe near substations or other utility poles.

Pearl River Valley EPA's Lumberton substation in rural Lamar County was hit overnight on Oct. 10, and that same facility was targeted by copper thieves the next month.

"Copper theft is a serious problem nationwide, and we have recently seen more instances in south Mississippi," said Brautigam, adding that other co-ops and investor-owned utilities in south-central Mississippi have reported similar incidents.