Copper Scavengers Loot High-Tech Infrastructure

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.