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Report: Copper theft threatens infrastructure

Fri, 12/05/2008 - 7:30am
Brian Santo

The theft of everything copper has been on the rise and is threatening critical U.S. infrastructure, concludes a new FBI report. The threat may have been diminishing even as the report was being written, however.

A tremendous increase in the value of copper encouraged the widespread theft of copper items, everything from manhole covers to public statuary to wiring and cell towers, which has been a growing concern of public utilities and communications companies.

Copper prices reached an all-time high of $4.26 per pound in May, due to a combination of growing demand and tightening supply. The cost began to erode shortly thereafter, however, and as the recession grew deeper, began to plunge. It closed at $1.50 yesterday, and some analysts expect it could go as low as $1/lb.

Reporting relative to the impact of copper thefts on U.S. critical infrastructure was derived from the FBI and open sources. The FBI has high confidence that the FBI source reporting used to prepare the assessment is reliable. The FBI also has high confidence in the reliability of information derived from open-source reporting.

The report notes that on April 4, five tornado warning sirens in the Jackson, Miss., area did not warn residents of an approaching tornado because copper thieves had stripped the sirens of copper wiring, thus rendering them inoperable.

Despite the sudden drop in prices, global demand is likely to regain strength as the world economy recovers. 

The report states that industry officials have taken some countermeasures to address the copper theft problem. “These include the installment of physical and technological security measures, increased collaboration among the various industry sectors, and the development of law enforcement partnerships.”

The report goes on to say: “Many states are also taking countermeasures by enacting or enhancing legislation regulating the scrap industry – to include increased recordkeeping and penalties for copper theft and noncompliant scrap dealers. However, there are limited resources available to enforce these laws, and a very small percentage of perpetrators are arrested and convicted. Additionally, as copper thefts are typically addressed as misdemeanors, those individuals convicted pay relatively low fines and serve short prison terms.”

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