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Think this is junk? Think again. Its value lures some to steal it.

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

The thieves are nothing if not brazen. They've climbed utility poles to take the copper telegraph wire that railroads use to send track-switching signals. They've stripped the aluminum guard rails from bridges on back roads, jumped scrap yard fences to steal truck wheel rims, slipped onto construction sites to rip the electrical wiring out of new houses.

"These are people who know the value of scrap metal and are willing to make the effort," Eugene police Detective Bob Holland said.

Holland investigates such crimes in Eugene, and as metal prices have shot skyward in the past couple of years, more thieves have gone after it. Copper and aluminum are their favorite targets.

The scrap metal market in the United States is significant. According to the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries, recyclers handled more than 130 million tons of recyclables destined for domestic use and overseas markets last year. That includes 4.1 million tons of scrap aluminum and 1.5 million tons of scrap copper.

The scrap prices follow the price trends of metal sold on the world's commodities markets. From January 2004 to December 2005, aluminum went from 73 cents a pound to $1.01 a pound, and copper prices doubled from $1.09 per pound to $2, according to commodities reports by the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries.

Those prices have been driven by significant industrial growth in China and India, and while metal theft is nothing new, it appears to be growing, according to police and those in the recycling industry.

No one has hard numbers on the thefts, but the problem prompted law enforcement agencies in the Portland area to create a task force targeting it last year.

The Joint Interagency Metals Task Force includes the Portland Police Bureau, the Marion County Sheriff's Office, the Linn County Sheriff's Office, the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Energy/Office of Inspector General, the Oregon State Department of Justice and the Federal Protective Service - Homeland Security.

In the Lane County area, the number of thefts noticeably jumped beginning in November last year, Holland said.

Thieves targeted construction sites such as a housing development on Royal Avenue. The project, by builder D.R. Horton, was hit in December when thieves stripped the electrical wiring out of four houses there.

At McKenzie Recycling, which handles construction site recyclables, thieves began regularly cutting through fencing to ransack the copper and aluminum bins.

"It was happening on a consistent basis," manager Mike Pegue said. "We probably got broken into four or five times that we could see.'

While the thefts were small with people taking only what they could carry, it was aggravating. After installing motion detectors, Pegue was able to catch two thieves in the act. The $1,000 worth of security equipment installed since February has more than paid for itself, he said.

At St. Vincent de Paul's Seneca store, thieves recently cut open a fence, knocked over the copper and aluminum recycling bins, cut through the locks with torches and made off with the contents.

With 10 secondhand stores in Lane County, the nonprofit agency recycles 20 tons of metal a day, executive director Terry McDonald said. Workers separate out the copper, aluminum and bronze from appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines that can't be sold in their stores.

"The degree of interest in removing this material illegally has racheted up with the increase in price," McDonald said. "It's become something you can put in your pocket and go buy a good dinner with."

For the scrap metal purchasers, the thefts represent a two-headed monster.

At Schnitzer Steel in Eugene, for example, the scrap yard attracts thieves who jump the fence and grab what they can by night. By day, they come in through the front door to sell what they've stolen.

It puts Schnitzer in the challenging position of weeding out legitimate scrap from the ill-gotten gains, general manager Chris Alexander said.

Schnitzer has slowed the thefts from its Eugene yard by installing thousands of dollars worth of surveillance equipment and razor wire around the perimeter. A night watchman is also now on duty there, Alexander said.

They keep careful tabs on who and what comes in to be sold to avoid buying stolen materials, he said. In the nonferrous metals area of the yard, it's easy to tell that a barrel full of old electrical wiring with the insulation still on probably came from a legitimate seller.

But when a load of chopped up railroad telegraph wire recently arrived, it was clear to Schnitzer employees - who had been alerted by railroad employees - that it had been stolen, so they called the police, Alexander said.

Some things that come in - perfectly good aluminum beer kegs, for example - are probably stolen.

With other stuff - clean uncut lengths of copper tubing, scuffed but still serviceable irrigation pipe, for example - it's not so easy to tell. So Schnitzer requires sellers to show government-issued photo identification. "We want to make sure that this business stays legitimate," Alexander said.

And Schnitzer's won't cut a check made out to an employee from an electrical or plumbing contracting business because of a rising trend in employee thefts, he said. "If it says Bob's Plumbing on the side of the van, the check goes to Bob's Plumbing," he said.

To walk through Schnitzer's massive yard is to understand the significance of the problem. A bundle of bright copper wire 3 feet by 5 feet by 2 feet will bring about $5,000, Alexander said.

Multiply that by all the bundles of less clean but still valuable copper to say nothing of the stacks of flattened aluminum and the value racks up quickly. Alexander gestured toward dozens of bundles waiting to be shipped out on rail cars and estimated the value at about $1.5 million.

The thefts don't just represent financial losses, said Craig Magill, special agent in charge of law enforcement and security for the Bureau of Land Management.

Thieves have stolen guard rails from bridges on forest roads of Highway 22 east of Salem, Magill said. As much as 350 feet have been taken, at a replacement cost of about $45,000. But the loss also creates a safety hazard on the bridge, he said, and it's not always possible to immediately replace the protective devices.

Worse still, thieves who steal insulated copper wire will often burn the insulation off, since bare wire fetches a higher price. They'll set the fires in remote locations on public lands and the fires leave behind a toxic mess that seeps into both soil and groundwater, he said.

"We get wire burns almost year-round, which makes the metal theft situation worse," he said. Protecting the state's 16 million acres of BLM land from that kind of abuse is almost impossible to do, Magill said.

No one expects the problem to abate anytime soon. With China and India expected to continue growing their industries, today's scrap metal prices are a canary in a coal mine, said McDonald, whose agency also builds low-income housing and tracks the cost of new materials. "Everything is getting more expensive," he said.
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Title Annotation:Crime; Police, recyclers and businesses say the price paid for scrap metal is enticing thieves
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 30, 2006
Words:1195
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