Copper looks golden to thieves
WASHINGTON — Skyrocketing copper prices have led to a rash of thefts across the USA of everything from electrical wires to plumbing pipes to vases from grave markers as vandals seek to sell the pricey metal to recyclers.
Although there are no official statistics, anecdotally, copper thefts appear to be at the highest level in a decade, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries spokesman Chuck Carr says. It's hard for recyclers to tell if copper items have been stolen because they don't carry any identifiers.
"It's been a big issue," says Frank Noonan, assistant U.S. attorney in Oregon. His office estimates metal theft is costing the state's economy millions of dollars each year.
In at least one case, a metal theft led to death. A 21-year-old West Virginia man died in May after he was electrocuted while stealing copper cables from electric power lines.
Copper prices have nearly tripled in the last year as demand for a variety of metals has soared throughout the world, especially in rapidly expanding India and China.
Copper is 100% recyclable, and selling scrap copper can be lucrative: Recyclers on average pay 90% of the new copper price, or more than $3 a pound, for scrap, according to the Copper Development Association.
Where thieves have hit:
• In Sumter, S.C., thieves stole 80 13-pound flower vases composed of 87% copper from graves in two cemeteries in April and May, says Al Cade, general manager of the Evergreen and Hillside Memorial cemeteries. Two teenagers were arrested.
Each vase costs $150 to $400. But some were a half-century old or older and are no longer being made, meaning some families will have to pay as much as $1,500 to replace the entire grave marker.
• Customers in Maine recently experienced power shortages after thieves stole copper wiring from at least six power substations in remote parts of the state, Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland says.
• Thieves in Oregon have hit power stations but have also stolen copper from other locations, including construction sites and small bridges. Noonan says many of the thieves are stealing the metal to get money to buy the illegal drug methamphetamine.
"They will take wire, metal, anywhere they can get it," he says.
With prices rising for a variety of metals, thieves are after more than copper. In Lorain, Ohio, 400 feet of aluminum bleachers were stolen from a youth sports complex on April 8.
A local scrap yard was cited after it bought the bleachers without the proper documentation. No arrests have been made.