‘Urban miners’ scrap plans to steal metals

Register Staff Writer

November 19, 2008 12:53 PM

A steep drop in scrap metal prices has translated to a drop in crime, Des Moines police say.

Lt. Mark Morgan said the theft of copper, aluminum and other metals has slowed as the prices criminals get for them has gone down. Specific numbers aren’t tracked, but Harold Burns of Burns Electric in Des Moines doesn’t need statistics to know something has changed dramatically.

“Thefts truly have slowed down,” said Burns, who not long ago installed an extensive surveillance system at his business to deter thieves. “The price of scrap metal is down. Thieves want to be paid well for what they do. They don’t work cheap.”

So-called “urban miners” have enjoyed a lucrative run that started with an uptick in copper and aluminum prices in 2005. A pound of copper that fetched less than $1 per pound in 2001 was up to $3.50 by 2006. The U.S. Department of Energy put the cost of thefts from U.S. utility companies at $1 billion between 2006 and 2007.

As the prices escalated, so did raids on vacant homes and businesses where pipe and wiring were ripped out of walls. Spools of copper wire were stolen from utility trucks. Outside air conditioners were targeted. So were auto parts. Metal fences were chopped down at ballparks. Bleacher seats were stolen. Cemetery markers were taken.

The pursuit of metal even turned deadly:

– Police said Jason Knowles, 34, of Indianola was trying to cut wire from a power pole when he was electrocuted last fall on Des Moines’ south side.

– A thief who stripped copper tubing from a propane tank in western Iowa in August was blamed for a buildup of gas in a house. The explosion killed 80-year-old Earl Thelander of Onawa.

Police in other states have reported a similar anecdotal drop in scrap metal crime as prices drop. The high prices resulted from heavy demand from India and China. But as the world economy slows, so does the profit from stolen metal.

“Demand has fallen off tremendously. Copper has fallen from over $4 a pound to about $1.62 now. Aluminum is down, the same with scrap iron,” said Bruce Babcock, professor of economics at Iowa State University. “It’s not just scrap metal, it’s the price of crude oil, wheat, even fertilizer. The world economy turned on a dime about last June. Construction slowed down, the economy slowed in China. Demand for metal slowed here and seemingly the rest of the world followed.”

Creighton Cox, spokesman for the Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines, said the drop-off in prices and thefts is good, if temporary, news. “I haven’t heard much about copper and scrap metal thefts lately. It’s down, but it’s still a concern,” he said. “I’m not sure if it’s down because of the price, or the fact that construction normally slows down a little in the fall anyway.”

Copyright The Des Moines Register

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