By Evelyn Nieves
FRESNO, Calif.— “The thieves strike in the middle of the night and work fast, in pairs or teams. They can make an entire neighborhood go dark in minutes. They screw open the street light maintenance boxes, find the copper wires and cut. Zip, zip. While police nab copper thieves in the act, they can’t be everywhere. Come nighttime, some streets are as black as caves. Even if thieves stopped today, utility crews would need up to a year to fix all the damage. Meanwhile, darkened neighborhoods entice crooks bent on robbing houses, stealing cars or worse.
Lately, thieves have taken and created bigger risks, stealing copper from the lights, signs and metering signals on freeways that rim the city. Caltrans, the state agency in charge of the roads, has had to divert workers from fixing potholes, guardrails and fencing to repair damaged lights before some horrible accident happens. They too, cannot keep up with the copper thieves, who are striking several times a week.
As if Fresno, one of the poorest cities in the country, didn’t have enough problems, what with high unemployment and rampant gangs, crime and methamphetamine abuse. Now, the city of 509,000 in the heart of California’s Central Valley farm country is the epicenter of a plague of copper wire theft afflicting recession-ravaged cities across the country. “We think we’re a year from having all the lights back,” said Lee Brand, a Fresno City Councilman who devised a plan to thwart thieves by having public works crews entomb the copper wire in over 20,000 maintenance boxes in quick-dry cement. But, he added, “There are a lot of desperate people out there.”
Since the price of copper has risen to record highs—to upwards of $4.50 a pound for scrap, from as low as $1 or so a pound five years ago—it has proven irresistible to cash-hungry scavengers everywhere. But places the recession has hit hardest, that are least able to afford another calamity, are bearing the brunt of the crisis. In Phoenix, Ariz., plagued by foreclosures, copper thieves hit AT&T stations more than 20 times last year, disrupting service to thousands and costing millions of dollars in repairs, security and lost revenue. In Haddonfield, N.J., a suburb a few miles from the busted slums of Camden, copper thieves have been stealing copper downspouts from single-family homes. In McDowell County, West Virginia, one of the poorest counties in Appalachia, copper thieves are doing serious damage to telephone lines, according to reports in scraptheftalert.com, which tracks thefts of copper and other recyclables.
From 2008 to 2011, when the recession was at its worst, metals stolen for resale to recyclers rose 81 percent nationwide, according to an insurance industry report released last spring. Copper accounted for 96 percent of the theft.
Streetlights and telephone lines are obvious targets. But thieves will steal copper wherever they could mine it. They break into padlocked foreclosures and bust the walls for copper wiring and pipes. They steal copper from air conditioners and hook-ups to major appliances, from statues in graveyards, from engines in cars. They black out schools, factories, day care centers, Main Streets. The Department of Energy conservatively estimates the copper wire theft costs the nation more than $1 billion per year.
In Fresno County, the poorest county in California but also the number one agricultural county in the nation, farms are taking a catastrophic hit. Thieves are stealing copper from water pumps, irrigation pipes and other farm equipment needed to grow major crops. The thefts account for 85 percent of the county’s rural crime, causing damage 10 times higher than the coppers’ scrap value, according to the Associated Press.
Some law enforcement officials blame Fresno’s meth addicts for the copper craze. Or they say that gang members who’ve served their time and are back on the streets have made copper wire theft their latest illegal business enterprise. But it’s anyone’s guess, really, as to who is doing the damage. Fresno has a poverty rate of 26.4 percent- in some schools, half the students live below the poverty line.
As reports have spread over how much copper can yield—a night’s work in a cul-de-sac can earn thieves several thousand dollars in scrap—the universe of copper thieves has grown larger. At 3 a.m. one recent morning, the police caught a 41-year-old man and his teenaged son trying to pull copper from a streetlight using a child’s bike.
Thieves are seldom caught. But those that are usually charged with misdemeanor or felony vandalism. In Fresno, where the jails are overcrowded because of budget cuts, copper theft suspects—like any suspects charged with non-violent offenses—are usually out in a day. Only a handful of states have laws that address metal theft directly; those that put requirements on scrap yard dealers to document their transactions. In California, for example, scrap dealers are supposed to wait three days before paying recyclers for scrap metal in order for the metals’ origins to be traced. But a loophole gives any recycler with 30 consecutive days of sales clearance for immediate cash.
On the blackened streets of the city, crews of utility workers preemptively protecting streetlights – a plan that is costing the city about $800,000 – are treated like heroes by residents who’ve designed their lives so as not to be out after dark. “Oh thank God,” said Greg Connor the other day, as he watched utility workers pack up their pick-ups after fixing a light that had blacked out his street for over six months. “Thank God almighty, we’re free at last.”
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