Thieves Targeting Copper at Job Sites

Sat January 28, 2006 - Midwest Edition

DES MOINES, IA (AP) Thieves looking for metal are striking gold at construction sites around Des Moines.

Police said rising metal prices have drawn so-called “urban miners” to construction areas, where they steal wiring, plumbing and copper tubing.

Copper prices, driven by economic growth in China and India, recently reached an all-time high $2.30 a pound on the London market, driving scrap copper in Iowa as high as $1.45 a pound, Iowa State engineering Professor Alan Russell said.

“It’s really quite startling. A graph of it looks sort of like the Alps,” he said.

“Major commodity metals are being consumed, and … there’s just not enough to meet demands,” Russell explained. “Copper demand in China has gone up 18 percent each year for the last two years. Four percent would be considered a lot.”

Scrap copper free of plastic, rubber and other pieces was selling for just 85 cents a pound in the fall of 2004, said Kirk Sherwood of A&F Scrap & Steel in Mount Pleasant.

Russell said it takes three years or more to ramp up production in new or mothballed copper mines, which gives scrap copper added value.

Metal fences have been hacked down at a Des Moines ballpark.

Aluminum grates disappeared from an east-side plant.

Rolls of copper wire were swiped from a telephone company’s storage building.

“It’s been terrible,” said Pleasant Hill, IA, detective Sgt. John Britt. “They go into these places and just make a mess.”

The aluminum grates at the sewage treatment plant in Des Moines were 500 lb. of high-grade, industrial-strength aluminum grating, said Bill Stowe, Des Moines’ public works director.

“It has to be strong so you can drive a forklift over it. They took a whole pallet of it. It’s unfortunate because it had a lot more value to us — it’s worth about $10,000 — than to whoever took it. They would get just a fraction of that for it,” he said.

Qwest Communications officials reported 15 rolls of cable taken from a storage area in the 100 block of College Avenue two weeks ago. The copper was valued at approximately $2,400.

Ron Tesdell, owner of Tesdell Electric in Ankeny, IA, said metal thieves “will cause up to $5,000 in damage to a house under construction to get $10 to $100 worth of scrap metal.”

“It’s crazy,” he said. “We’ve had about 60 minor cases where they cause about $300 to $600 damage and four major cases where they strip the whole house.”

Similar thefts have been reported in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Oregon.