Copper a Rich — and Risky — Draw for Thieves

With copper fetching higher and higher prices on the international commodities market, copper thefts have been on the rise across the country. Thieves steal the metal for resale to recyclers, and they'll look anywhere — from air conditioning units on private homes, to electrical substations —with sometimes deadly results.

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Copper continues to be a red-hot commodity from the international market to your neighborhood junk dealer. The high demand and increased prices for scrap recycling has encouraged the theft of copper from construction sites and electrical substations to newly renovated homes.

NPR's Audie Cornish takes a look behind the story.

AUDIE CORNISH: Chuck Gan(ph) thought he was one of the lucky ones. The contractor actually helped catch a thief wrestling copper tubing out of his new air conditioning unit.

Mr. CHUCK GAN (Contractor): No, he took all, running with everything he could, you know, still attached really because I did have my pistol out. And I scared him to death so he took all running through the back.

CORNISH: Unfortunately, Gan still couldn't save his AC, says Nashville Police Sergeant Anna Williams.

Sergeant ANNA WILLIAMS (Nashville Police): He comes out here, chases the guy, the guy is caught, we arrest the guy, and while we're in booking - booking this guy - somebody else shows up and finishes stealing the copper out of his air conditioning unit.

CORNISH: Sergeant Williams says in her East Nashville precinct alone, copper thefts are up 25 percent over last year, and she is not the only one to see a spike in reports. Last week in Georgia, two people were chased down by police dogs while trying to steal copper pipes and wiring from the department's K9 training facility. In Kentucky and Arkansas, people have been electrocuted trying to take scrap metal from utility substations.

Copper is 100 percent recyclable and the scrap is especially valuable when there isn't enough freshly mined material to go around, says Ken Geremia of the Copper Development Association.

Mr. KEN GEREMIA (Communications Director, Copper Development Association): Well, yeah, it's a question of supply and demand. And right now, there is an increased demand for it, related to the third world developing countries, in particular China, which have put a huge stress on the availability of the product. It can only be made so quickly.

CORNISH: So copper that once sold for 80 cents a pound in 2000 is now going for nearly $4 a pound.

(Soundbite of recycling equipment)

CORNISH: At a local recycling company, just a short drive away from Chuck Gan's neighborhood, scrap metal comes in from homeless men with shopping carts and contractors in pickup trucks.

Sergeant Williams points to the piles of radiators, pipes and other scrap, and says junk metal copper is practically untraceable once it gets to places like this.

Sgt. WILLIAMS: These guys have no idea. I mean, these guys working here, they don't know - as far as they know, it's somebody's that's doing renovations on their house and bringing in old stuff here. So I mean, they have no clue if some scraped bar over here is stolen or not.

CORNISH: But now, states are leaning harder on scrap metal recyclers to help address the problem. Last year, legislators in 17 states launched bills calling for provisions like new licensing, tougher fines, new record keeping, and monitoring responsibilities for recyclers. Lawmakers in Tennessee and Hawaii went so far as to pitch plans that required junk dealers to fingerprint their clients.

Mr. STEVE HIRSCH (Director of State And Local Programs, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries): Well, we don't want to discourage legitimate recycling.

CORNISH: Steve Hirsch is from the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, an advocacy group. Hirsch says scrap recyclers support monitoring and record-keeping programs to help police investigations. But he says fingerprinting programs go too far and aren't likely to be effective.

Mr. HIRSCH: People have, for decades, gone around and gathered materials and recycled them. And that's how many of our members' great grandparents got started hundred years ago. And it's an important and legitimate business. And we don't want to discourage that by overburdening it with restrictions.

CORNISH: Meantime, police in Tennessee are taking matters into their own hands, launching a task force to take on the problem. They're starting with a data base to notify junk dealers of large-scale copper thefts possibly headed their way, and they're looking at a no-sale list - banning convicted thieves from selling to scrap recyclers. That of course won't help Chuck Gan. He recently discovered copper thieves had stolen the electrical wiring from his property as well.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Nashville.

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