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Costly copper: Scrap metal thieves put public in danger

July 13, 2014 at 1:36 PM EDT
Metal thefts, which have caused blackouts and traffic accidents, are on the rise in states across the country. A new Ohio state law aims to tackle this problem by regulating scrap yards.
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RICK KARR: Angela Day’s landline kept going dead in 2012. She didn’t have a cell phone she could use instead because cell coverage is spotty in the Appalachian region of Ohio where she lives. And at the house where she was living with her daughter and her parents, there’s no cell signal at all. So whenever she had to be away from home, she worried. Especially about her father.

ANGELA DAY: He had a heart condition and he had had several open-heart surgeries.  He had triple-bypass surgery.

RICK KARR: A few days after Christmas, he said he wasn’t feeling well.

ANGELA DAY: He called over to talk to a nurse.  And he was having problems with the phone.

RICK KARR: His condition deteriorated, and finally he said he needed an ambulance. The family called 911, but the line was so bad that they finally gave up and Day’s brother rushed their father to doctors. But it was too late. He died that evening.

ANGELA DAY: It was really frustrating close to the whole week afterwards we couldn’t even call out to plan the funeral. We couldn’t even call and tell family that he had passed.  I had to go to my workplace to use the phone to even call the funeral home.

RICK KARR: Angela Day’s phone didn’t work because thieves were stealing telephone wires all over the county. It’s one of the poorest in Ohio, and the copper in the lines was valuable. There could be hundreds of dollars’ worth in the cables strung between two utility poles. At the time, thieves were stealing all kinds of metal throughout Ohio; parts from farm equipment and electrical substations, manhole covers, grave markers. For five years running, the state has led the nation in metal thefts. And from one corner of Ohio to another, thieves have put the public in danger.

RICK KARR: According to police here in Akron, there was an accident on that interstate highway behind me because of an attempt to steal copper wire from the high tension lines beyond it. The would-be-thieves climbed up and cut the line so it dangled over the interstate under thousands of volts of tension. When an SUV got too close there was a bright flash that blew out the windshield and knocked the driver unconscious.

RICK KARR: The driver survived. But thieves themselves aren’t always so lucky.

RICK KARR: I’m struck by the idea of somebody climbing up a utility pole and cutting something like this down. I mean this is gonna be carrying a lot of juice.  This is gonna be a dangerous crime to commit.

DETECTIVE BOB MEADER: Let me be very clear on this.  We have people dying regularly for this.

RICK KARR: Commander Bob Meader’s been dealing with metal theft for more than two decades as a Columbus cop. Metal prices have come down recently, but copper is still more than twice as valuable as it was a decade ago. In 2007, Columbus became the first city in the state to crack down on metal theft. Police couldn’t keep an eye on every piece of metal thieves might steal. But the city could make it harder for them to sell it.

DETECTIVE BOB MEADER: We know that it’s not gonna go to the center of the city and put a sign out and say, “I have scrap metal for sale.”  There’s one location in the state of Ohio, and throughout the United States, that they can get money for it and that is a scrap yard.

RICK KARR: Columbus enacted a new ordinance requiring scrap yards to follow rules a lot like the ones that apply to the city’s pawn shops. Scrap dealers have to check every customer’s ID against an online database of convicted thieves — who might be trying to sell what they’ve stolen. Dealers have to record every detail of every purchase they make so that law enforcement can investigate thefts. Columbus officials say anecdotal evidence suggests the rules have cut down on metal theft. Ohio legislators used the city ordinance as the basis of a new state law. Ohio scrap dealer Josh Joseph says when Columbus cracked down, thieves went to scrap yards outside the city limits. Now that the whole state is cracking down they’ll just go to scrap yards across the state line.

JOSH JOSEPH: For someone to steal it, drive someplace where they know there are really laxed laws or laxed enforcement of the laws, and sell it, is a really easy thing to happen. The uniformity of the law, the uniformity of the way that it is enforced from an industry perspective, we see as paramount to the success of the law.

RICK KARR: Joseph has a lot of other concerns about the law. For one thing, he worries about what the cost of complying with it will do to family-owned small businesses in the industry.

JOSH JOSEPH: It’s anywhere from probably $20,000 or $30,000 up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. You know, we’ve spent six figures to, to maintain, upgrade, and train our people in order to be compliant.

RICK KARR: And training might not be enough to keep some employees honest.

RICK KARR: How can you be sure that if somebody steals, say, a bunch of copper wire, brings it in, slips one of your employees a hundred bucks,  how do you ensure that your employee’s not susceptible to that?

JOSH JOSEPH: I would say that our employees are susceptible to that.  We think we’ve had some instances of that happening in the past.

RICK KARR: Have you ever had to fire anybody?

JOSH JOSEPH: We have.

RICK KARR: There could also be consequences to the environment, according to scrap dealers. They’re in the recycling business. The metal they take in gets melted down and reused. The law in Ohio makes it a crime for scrap dealers to buy certain items unless sellers can prove something’s theirs to sell, electrical lines, for instance, and telephone cables. But the list also includes items homeowners might bring in. And it could end up in a landfill if a scrap dealer refuses it to stay on the safe side of the law, according to Robin Weiner, who runs the scrap industry’s Washington-based trade group.

ROBIN WEINER: I’ve gotten emails from citizens who’ve complained that they’ve gone to one of our members and the members, and then the member asked for proof of ownership and they don’t have that.  You know, how are they gonna, they wanna do the right thing and recycle.

RICK KARR: Josh Joseph’s family’s been in the scrap business for four generations. He doesn’t like his business being compared to a pawn shop. And he’s not sure his industry should have to bear the burden of cracking down on metal thieves.

Thieves will keep stealing metal, according to Angela Day, as long as it’s valuable. A couple of months after her father died, police arrested two men who were charged with stealing phone lines, including the one that law enforcement officials say affected the call to 9-1-1 the day her father died. She’d known one of the men as a kid. And she understands what motivated the crimes.

ANGELA DAY: Growing up here you realize how desperate people are and how much in need this area is.  I mean, there’s not a lot of resources.  They’re still gonna be stealing things.  I mean, that’s just a part of life.  I don’t care where you at, live in the Unites States.  You’re gonna have that.  You’re gonna have people desperate or stealing, to make you know, to survive.

RICK KARR: Both men are serving prison terms for stealing the telephone lines.