Columbia copper thefts increase

Tuesday, April 22, 2008 | 3:56 p.m. CDT; updated 2:41 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Copper cables hang exposed in the basement of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, under construction at MU.

COLUMBIA — As copper’s value continues to soar, it has become a target for thieves, creating a problem for construction and building sites around Columbia.

Because copper has become a popular material for a wide range of uses and because its supply is limited, its resale price has skyrocketed over the last several years. Scrap yards now pay up to $3 per pound of copper, which is three times its value as of 2003.

On March 26, MU’s Discovery Ridge construction site lost more than $20,000 in copper after thieves entered the compound late at night.

Less than a week later, on April 1, a second theft occurred at the construction site at MU’s School of Journalism. Coastal Electric Company, one of the companies at the site, lost $19,000 worth of copper wiring during the theft.

“We do a good job to lock up the equipment, but in this most recent incident, the people cut the locks and drove on through the gates,” said Nancy Palmer, a representative for Coastal Electric Company.

These two incidents, still under investigation, are the most recent in a string of ongoing copper and scrap metal crimes in Columbia.

“The number of copper theft reports have picked up the past several years,” said Sgt. Ken Hammond of the Columbia Police Department. “It is not uncommon because of its (copper’s) availability. Criminals are just out to turn an easy buck as quick as they can.”

And the thefts don’t seem to be stopping anytime soon, as the price of copper continues to rise. Palmer said that $19,000 was the value of the copper when the company bought it, but the price of the material has increased since then.

According to analysts, the increasing price of the metal is a direct cause of a supply and demand gap.

An analysis written by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2007 says copper demand exceeded the amount of supply in 2003. At this time, China became the leading consumer of copper because of its common use in the construction industry.

When copper theft occurs, companies lose more than just the price of the copper stolen. New copper must be re-ordered, which could set construction deadlines back by several weeks. Theft also drives up the price of the company’s insurance.

“The insurance companies will reimburse the amount of metal lost, but just like car insurance, if you get in an accident, your rates will increase,” said Adam Garnett, an estimator for Septagon Construction, which has an office in Columbia.

Companies are taking as many precautions to prevent thefts, but it is hard to safeguard material because it is difficult to keep a 24-hour watch over all their expensive items.

Hammond said there is no specific profile for a copper thief, making it hard for companies to safeguard their copper.

“Incidents happen a lot, and it is difficult to document them,” Hammond said. Criminals will often go to great lengths to get just a little bit of copper, and most of the thieves seem to know what they are looking for and where and how to get it, Hammond said.

In order to deter thefts, scrap yards stay on the lookout for stolen materials.

Dave Fusselman, owner of Fusselman Salvage Company in Moberly, said he pays attention to who walks through the doors of his salvage yard and what type of material they’re selling. If he thinks something is suspicious, he said he takes down license plate information and contacts the police. Doing this has enabled police to track down thieves and contact the companies from which the copper was stolen, Fusselman said.

“If someone brought in new copper tubing, we would be suspicious, but there would be no way to know who lost it, if indeed it was stolen,” Fusselman said. “The best scenario is when a theft is detected by the contractor immediately and reported to the police within 24 hours so they can call recycling operations and ask them to be on the lookout for specific material.”

The Missouri Senate is also doing its part to help curb copper theft.

Senate Bill 1034, which was given its first round of approval in the Missouri Senate in March and has now been sent to the House, aims to modify record-keeping on purchases of copper scrap metal by forcing sellers to provide a drivers license and vehicle information. The bill would also put a limit on what kind of scrap metal can be purchased.

“Right now it is a matter of public awareness. If people know what is going on and are keeping a watch, then hopefully something will happen,” Palmer said. “Aside from sitting and standing guard, I hope the system will be there for us, and they will get caught. Everybody gets caught in due time.”

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jack foote April 23, 2008 | 6:26 p.m.

Congratulations on a great article.

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