Up the walls and down the drains for copper

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2007, 12:00am

There's a mighty fortress look to St Paul's AME Church in Detroit, but appearances have provided no bulwark against thieves stripping copper tubing from its air conditioning and ripping off wires.

Vandals have hit the old, red-brick church on the city's near east side nine times in nine months.

In Detroit, as in cities and towns across the US, it's open season on homes, businesses, churches, construction sites, power stations - just about anything with copper plumbing, wiring or downspouts. Thieves are even cutting down utility poles to get at the wires and knocking off fire hydrants for copper pipes.

The soaring price of scrap metal has fuelled vandalism that has disrupted power supplies and, in Detroit, left at least six people dead while trying to steal electrical wires for a few hundred dollars.

Copper prices have leaped nearly 60 per cent since February and is now crowding US$4 a pound, from less than US$1 five years ago. With the metal in plain sight, there's a powerful incentive for thefts.

'It's like money out there, just lying around,' says Bill Gainer, director of government relations for AT&T in Chicago.

Unlike murders or drug activities that thrive in troubled inner cities, copper thefts show no geographic or demographic preference. What began as an occasional police blotter item in the local weekly last year is now a national epidemic.

'I've been around the block for 45 years ... and I never would have thought you'd experience a crime wave of copper thieves,' says William Dwyer, police chief in the affluent Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills.

The price of copper, due in part to China's voracious appetite for the metal, has leaped by nearly 60 per cent since February and is now around US$4 a pound. Five years ago it was trading at under US$1. With copper in plain public sight, there's a powerful incentive for some to steal it and cash in at scrap dealers.

Michael Lynch, director of security for Detroit-based DTE Energy, says thieves hit one of the utility's sites 38 times in eight months. 'The problem is bigger now because of the danger,' he says, citing electrocutions and a growing number of utility poles that have been cut down.

Dallas recorded more than 1,500 cases of metal theft through mid-September, a 50 per cent rise over all of last year. Thieves in Colorado Springs ripped copper drain pipes from St Mary's Cathedral last month. Hawaii has made copper theft a felony.

The Reverend Andre Spivey, pastor of St Paul's, says his church's problem started last November, when someone cut a fence surrounding air conditioners and stole one of them. 'Then they took the second one.'

Thefts shut down the church's cooling system for a week in August, and members of the congregation volunteered to do all-night patrols. 'Some said they'd bring their dogs and do anything to protect the church,' Mr Spivey says. 'I told them I didn't want them being church vigilantes.'

Mr Lynch says DTE offers US$1,000 leading to the arrest and conviction of thieves, and US$2,500 for information leading to the arrest of dealers who buy the company's stolen wires. The utility has handed out US$10,000 in awards so far.

Mr Gainer says the problem will not be solved until scrap dealers know they can be held liable. 'Someone can take wires to a scrap dealer and get 20 to 30 bucks,' he says, 'and it costs us US$25,000 to US$30,000 to put it all back together again.'