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
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. …