A Skowhegan man is lucky to be alive after allegedly breaking into power company substations in five towns to steal copper wiring, Central Maine Power Co. officials said.

Michael Grant, 30, of Middle Road, was arrested Monday at an Oakland scrapyard and charged with felony theft and aggravated criminal mischief for allegedly breaking into and stealing copper wire from Central Maine Power Co. substations in Kennebec County.

Grant is accused of causing thousands of dollars’ worth of damage to facilities in Waterville, Winslow, Augusta, Farmingdale and Windsor, according to a press release from Winslow Police Chief Shawn O’Leary.

Oakland police said Grant was arrested on unrelated charges at an Onesteel Recycling facility.

Police estimated that the cost of the damage to the substations and the value of the copper wire stolen are $20,000 to $30,000.

Trying to steal copper from a high-voltage electrical station can have dire consequences.

“It is extremely dangerous. People have died doing this,” CMP spokeswoman Gail Rice said Tuesday. “In fact, within the past couple weeks somebody lost his life in upstate New York from burns he had received when he was trying to steal copper from a substation that one of our affiliates, New York State Electric and Gas, owns. He was one of two people in there. There was a big flash and he was severely burned, and he died a few days later. The other guy came out unscathed; I don’t know how.”

O’Leary said Winslow police Detective Ron McGowan and Waterville Detective Alan Perkins were able to solve the copper thefts during an investigation over the past several weeks.

“Several other law enforcement agencies assisted Winslow and Waterville in solving this crime spree,” O’Leary said.

Rice said the company has increased security at power substations and works directly with law enforcement agencies to crack down on copper thefts.

“The substations all have fences around them, and gates. These people are often cutting through the fence. They’re taking bolt cutters and cutting through the chain-link fence to gain entrance to the substation,” Rice said. “We are catching these people now. We’re working with all of the local police departments, state police and various sheriff’s departments on all of these.

Rice added that legislation passed in 2012 requires that scrap metal sales be documented by the scrap yard, preventing junk metal dealers from paying cash for metal and requiring a photo ID from anyone selling metal scraps.

Several CMP substations have been vandalized as thieves seek access to the copper wires that ground the substation. The ground wire is a path along which electrical current can be directed safely to the ground in the event of a short circuit.

“Grounding equipment is used in substations and sometimes on distribution poles as a protective device,” Rice said. “When that grounding is removed, it makes the substation unsafe. It’s unsafe for the people that are cutting the wires, and they leave the substation in a dangerous state for our crews that work in them.”

Rice said it also is potentially dangerous to CMP customers who rely on power to operate medical equipment if there is a power outage related to substation copper thefts.

“It’s dangerous to everybody. These people that are doing this are lucky they are not getting themselves killed,” Rice said.

She said she doesn’t know of any recent serious injuries, deaths or major power outages in Maine associated with thefts of copper ground wires.

O’Leary said he anticipates additional charges will be filed against Grant by Augusta police, state police and the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office.

Grant already was in custody Monday at the Kennebec County jail when he was charged with the copper thefts. Oakland police had charged him in an unrelated incident. He also was facing charges of a probation violation and with operating after license revocation.

An employee of Onesteel Ltd., operators of the Oakland metal recycling facility where Grant was arrested, referred questions to the yard manager. No immediate response was received to an email sent via the company’s website. The website says the company has operations in Maine, Virginia, Florida and Alberta.

Bail for Grant has not been set, O’Leary said.

Another man, Joseph Ridley, 42, of Augusta, was arrested last week on theft charges related to copper thefts at a CMP site in Belgrade. He is being held in lieu of $3,500 cash bail. He has denied any role in copper thefts in other Kennebec County communities.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow

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