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Copper, scrap metal sought by thieves

September 11, 2008

HOUGHTON - Across the nation, copper thefts are on the rise due to an increase in value over previous years. U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, has introduced legislation that he hopes will make copper theft harder to pull off.

The Copper Theft Prevention Act, H.R. 6831, would require scrap metal dealers to make transactions of more than $500 by check rather than cash and also document the name and address of the seller, the date and description of the transaction, and the seller's driver's license or other government-issued identification number. Stupak introduced the bill with U.S. Congressman Jim Ramstad, R-Minn.

Although 28 states already have laws regarding copper and metal theft, Stupak and Ramstad believe a federal law is necessary to protect copper used for utility purposes.

"The Copper Theft Prevention Act will help protect consumers, businesses and our nation's critical infrastructure," Stupak said in a press release Monday. "Copper thefts are causing power outages, downing phone lines, disrupting the delivery of products and costing businesses and homeowners billions of dollars a year. My bill would give law enforcement officials the tools they need to investigate these crimes."

In 2007, Michigan enacted two laws that require scrap metal processors to be licensed and keep records. The laws also established sentencing guidelines for buying and selling stolen scrap metal. The bills were introduced by former State Rep. Mary Waters in response to an outbreak of copper cable thefts near Detroit.

The price of copper has increased from about 83 cents per pound in 2000 to more than $4 per pound this year. Tight supplies have led to an increase in copper recycling, which has created a market for used copper and has made it a target for theft.

Locally, the theft of copper and other metal has been a problem.

"There are a number of thefts involving scrap metal and sometimes copper shows up," Sgt. Chuck Cadwell of the Houghton County Sheriff's Department said.

Upper Peninsula Power Company Communications Manager Janet Wolfe said the company stores its copper conductor in secure areas, but said some has been stolen out in the field.

Wolfe stressed the hazards of stealing conductor.

"This could be very dangerous for the thief because the lines are probably energized," she said.

Charter Communications Spokesperson Tim Ransberger said the issue is not a problem in Michigan.

"We've heard of it in other parts of the country, but it hasn't been an issue for us locally," he said.

Keweenaw Scrap Metal Office Manager Tammy Ecklund said she saw more copper coming in last summer because prices were higher than this summer. Now, she said people bring in "a combination of weird things." She said the business currently pays $2.40 per pound of No. 1 copper, or clean copper, and $160 a ton for some iron.

"We haven't had copper as much as just people going into people's yards and stealing people's junky scrap metal," she said. "If we even have an indication that someone is bringing stolen stuff in here, we won't take it. Usually it's like 'Oh yeah, I'm cleaning my old grandpa's farm out.' We hear that a lot, it's not an uncommon thing."

Ecklund said the company takes several precautions to ensure that they do not buy stolen metal. These include having seller's fingerprints and driver's licenses on file, paying by check and recording every transaction on a ticket. The company may also start photographing items brought in for their records, she said.

They take these steps not only to comply with Michigan laws, but also to avoid losing money.

"The thing is, we don't know at the time that something is stolen, usually it is after the fact when the police come," she said. The metal then gets confiscated and the company is out the money they paid for it, she said.

Layla Aslani can be reached at



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