Copper Scavengers Loot High-Tech Infrastructure

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Copper is not exactly a precious metal. It gets used precisely because it's not that expensive yet it's still admirably conductive. Trading at about $4 per pound on the New York Mercantile Exchange, you wouldn't think it would be worth stealing. But it is. It's easy to steal and easy to sell once you've done so. Copper thieves have been at it for decades, as this Google News Archive search shows, but there's a difference now. As more and more systems operate with some level of computerized control, cutting power to them increases the potential for serious damage. As BusinessWeek reports in a huge feature, metal thieves are taking a serious toll on the high-tech but fragile infrastructure that undergirds our country.

Since 2001 the price of copper has gone from less than $1 per pound to about $4 per pound on the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange (CME). In response, looters and scavengers nationwide are stealing copper where they can. Within the last three years, copper thieves have disabled 130 cell tower sites across 17 jurisdictions in eastern Virginia and North Carolina. They stripped the wire from an airplane control tower in Ohio, endangering in-flight communications. They scuttled the irrigation system of Pinal County, Ariz., causing $10 million in damage and ruining a harvest. In Indianapolis, gutted refrigeration systems cost the state's largest food bank $400,000 in spoiled rations. In Jackson, Miss., thieves stole the copper from five storm sirens, which then failed to warn residents of an incoming tornado. In Kansas City, Mo., power outages due to stolen wire caused a credit union to freeze bank accounts, while a separate group allegedly used a backhoe to excavate 18,000 feet of backup power lines worth at least $500,000. In western Nevada, bandits on four-wheelers took out signal and control systems from Union Pacific (UNP) and Amtrak rail lines. In Minneapolis and Cincinnati, police say gangs use foreclosure lists like treasure maps, looting pipes from hundreds of homes, some of which exploded from gas leaks.

Read the full story at BusinessWeek.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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