Nail That Siding Tight! Metal Thieves Grow Brash

By Arnoldy, Ben | The Christian Science Monitor, April 24, 2007 | Go to article overview

Nail That Siding Tight! Metal Thieves Grow Brash


Arnoldy, Ben, The Christian Science Monitor


Something wasn't right with Old Betsy. After a long day parked at the office, the 1991 Toyota truck started with a roar that "sounded like NASCAR," says owner Michael Belef. When he looked underneath, two sawed-off ends of pipe stared back at him where the catalytic converter used to sit.

Thieves have been stealing catalytic converters across the region, including some from the same guarded parking lot in Silicon Valley. The pilfered parts are sold to scrap metal recyclers, some of whom will pay $50 to $100 for the precious metals inside.

The spree is part of the widespread and rapidly growing crime of metal theft. Filchers are lifting everything from copper wiring to aluminum beer kegs to the brass flower holders at cemeteries. The more audacious are sawing down live electric poles and ripping siding off strangers' homes.

The reason: International demand, especially from China's factories, has sent metal prices soaring, say experts.

"There are a couple of things going on. One is a lack of investment in the infrastructure for more production when the prices were low," says Mary Poulton, a mining expert at the University of Arizona. "The second is China and India coming on so strong, so quickly. So you've got a decreased capacity for commodities worldwide and a drastically increased consumption."

China is stringing power and telephone lines into its western interior, while the growing ranks of Asia's middle class clamor for modern housing and cars - all of which require lots of metal, she says.

Prices are high for copper, stainless steel, aluminum, and three metals found in catalytic converters: platinum, palladium, and rhodium. Especially in the case of copper, thefts have increased with the prices.

"[Copper prices] would drop below a dollar, and the thefts would tail off, and it would come up over a dollar, and the thefts would go up," says Bob Sypult, security director for Southern California Edison, who has followed the issue for many years. "But it peaked out here last year at $4.00 a pound."

The spike in thefts has become so widespread that more than 30 state legislatures are considering legislation to tackle the problem, according to Steve Hirsch, legislative director for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) based in Washington.

National statistics are not kept, and local police often don't track metal heists separately from general theft. However, major industries have some numbers:

* Farmers in California's Central Valley reported metal thefts last year totaling more than $6 million, according to the ACTION Project in Visalia, Calif. The number of reported incidents skyrocketed by 400 percent over the previous year. Thieves typically make off with irrigation pipe and the copper wiring in irrigation pumps, endangering crops.

* Metal thefts against the electric industry rose 300 percent over the past two years, says Mr. Sypult. People are taking whatever wires they can get to resell the copper, sometimes breaking into substations at considerable risk to themselves, repairmen, and others nearby.

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