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Joel Bourne, Heritage HSSE officer shows the illegal wire that was used to connect to a Heritage Petroleum Company low voltage power line in Rifle Range in Palo Seco.

Squatters and delinquent customers of the T&T Electricity Commission (T&TEC) have been stealing millions of dollars’ worth of electricity through illegal electricity connections. Between 2019 and 2020 they stole $1.3 million in electricity.

Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales, the line minister for T&TEC, said the thefts have been putting T&TEC under financial strain.

“It is worrying and I am very concerned,” Gonzales admitted to Guardian Media. “This is a matter the commission has to aggressively deal with.”

His comments came hours after T&TEC warned the public in advertisements in the daily newspapers and on its Facebook page about the risk to life and property from the illegal electricity connection. The Commission also reminded citizens that under the T&TEC Act tampering with its electricity installations and illegal electricity connections are criminal offences.

T&TEC said it will “investigate such complaints and take legal action against anyone found guilty of such offences” and urged civic-minded citizens to report instances of illegal connections to any of its offices to help clamp down on the activity.

The warning came days after the electrocution of Palo Seco resident Dale Williams, 34, who came in contact with a live electrical line he had illegally connected from a Heritage low voltage powerline to his house.

Gonzales said for years illegal connections have been occurring mainly in unplanned developments and squatting settlements. He said many of these occupants are unable to fulfil the legal requirements to get legitimate electricity connections from T&TEC, so they resort to stealing.

“They go onto these unplanned developments…and they build houses. I can tell you personally that some of these people reach out to me to try and see if I could get T&TEC to circumvent their own processes so they can get electricity which is wrong. I cannot do that because it will open a Pandora’s Box,” the minister said.

T&TEC’s customer base is almost 495,000.

Gonzales was unable to say how many squatters steal T&TEC’s electricity.

He said the electricity is stolen via three methods—using extension cables from one property to another, unauthorised connections after being disconnected for non-payment and customers connecting a wire directly from his installation to an overhead line. Using extension connection cables from one home to another is the most prevalent method and T&TEC has been trying to address the issue.

Gonzales said a 2019 Current Stealing Verification report compiled by T&TEC revealed that the electricity company suffered losses of $943,312.72 in “current stealing charges and back billing of accounts.” The report showed T&TEC had received a total of 1,276 reports of illegal electricity connections in five areas of T&T: North-187, South-450, East-396, Central-217 and Tobago-26.

Giving a breakdown of how much electricity each district had stolen, Gonzales said communities in the east, which he refused to identify, have been the biggest culprits. They unlawfully extracted $413,460.89 in electricity.

Tobago ranked last on the list, having stolen $44,440.01 in current, according to T&TEC’s figures. South, Central and North pilfered $223,033.07, $212,157.87 and $50,220.88 worth of electricity respectively.

However, T&TEC were able to disconnect 1434 unlawful connections in 2019.

A closer examination of the 2020 Current Stealing Verification report showed that T&TEC had an overall decline in electricity theft. Last year, T&TEC reported $375,513.07 in electricity had been stolen—a significant reduction.

Gonzales said this was as a result of T&TEC’s swift response to reports of illegal connections and their keen observations during routine patrols.

“T&TEC has a special unit that deals with these complaints. They also patrol unplanned developments with the police to disconnect any illegal connection they detect,” he said.

A breakdown of the report revealed that the east district had stolen $159,605.98 in electricity- making them the biggest offender for the second year in a row. South illegally extracted $99,875,20 in electricity while central pilfered $62,253.89.

Gonzales said T&TEC also disconnected 850 of the 965 illegal connection reports received.

Except for 2020, Gonzales said customers and members of the public stole on average “$1 million in electricity from T&TEC annually.”

“This is money T&TEC continues to lose. The way these things go, somebody, pays the price…and therefore T&TEC pays the price for these illegal connections. This creates a financial drain and risk on the utility company. It takes a lot of money for T&TEC to generate electricity. The gas from National Gas Company and the power purchase agreements from those electricity-generating companies like Powergen.”

By the time the electricity reaches consumers, T&TEC would have expended millions of dollars.

“It is not money this utility company will collect in order to fulfil their contractual obligations. The issue of illegal connections for T&TEC and WASA is a serious matter because it means it is posing a financial burden on these companies,” he said.

Gonzales said the illegal connections have also resulted in deaths and injuries.

Under T&TEC’s Act, Chapter 54:70it is a criminal offence to tamper with the commission’s electrical installations and/or make electrical connections.

“Section 72 of the Act states that every person who maliciously or fraudulently abstracts, causes to be wasted or diverted, consumes, or uses any electricity is guilty of simple larceny and shall be punishable accordingly,” Gonzales said.

Also, Section 4 of the Larceny Act (Chapter 11:12) stipulates stealing for which no special punishment is provided under this or any other Act for the time being in force shall be simple larceny and punishable with imprisonment for five years.

Gonzales said a person found charged for stealing electricity is fined according to the magistrate’s discretion.

In some cases, he said the fines have been petty, ranging around $2,000 and $3,000.

“It is not a deterrent,” he said,

Gonzales said harsher measures and penalties are required.

“What we can explore is the use of administrative sanctions by T&TEC similar to what we have done with the Motor Vehicles and Road Traffic Act where we empowered the Transport Commissioner to improve administrative sanctions on drivers for traffic violations.”

“We need to look at different ways in which action can be taken by the commission against persons for illegal extractions of electricity. I intend to look at the legislation and see how we can improve the law with illegal electricity extraction and how it is enforced. We just can’t be hauling someone before the criminal court on these types of matters.”

He said the courts should have no business in dealing with those matters.

“Taking these matters to court causes a burden on the judicial system. What we need are robust enforcement and urgent action. Something like illegal electricity connections the commission should have the power to impose.”

Gonzales said the Commission will have to pattern sanctions from successful Commonwealth countries.

“In reviewing the laws, the fine has to serve as a deterrent. I am not a supporter of sending someone to jail for extraction of illegal electricity. You don’t criminalise someone for that. That is the reason why the laws need to be updated,” he said.

Going forward, Gonzales said, T&TEC has to become financially sustainable.