August 16, 2006


Copper turns to gold for thieves

Construction sites fall victim to increasing thefts


The soaring price of copper has electrical contractors scrambling to lock up their job sites and storage yards as thefts of wiring and related hardware skyrocket.

Since January this year, the price of copper has quadrupled along with other commodities, driven mostly by insatiable demand of China’s infrastructure boom.

That in turns has driven up the price for metals like aluminum and copper, and made them targets for thieves who collect close to $4 a pound cash from scrap dealers.

It’s a double whammy for contractors who are also struggling to project the price of wiring when they bid jobs only to see their estimate fall short as copper continues to rise.

Statistics are hard to nail down. Toronto Police Services alone reported 18 incidents of theft of copper wire and fittings from yards and jobs sites in the last 12 months.

In another case last May 6 in Etobicoke, a homeless person was swarmed and robbed by other addicts for the bag of copper wiring he was carrying.

In almost all cases, the value of the thefts exceeded $5,000, but summaries aren’t available. York Regional, Durham, Peel and Hamilton Wentworth police report similar problems.

The phenomenon is occurring across North America, Europe and Canada where, from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, thefts are up.

In Quebec, churches have been stripped of their copper cutters and roofing while New Brunswick power poles have been plundered and substations shut down by thieves.

In B.C., a man was electrocuted when he tried to pull wires from a high voltage line.

Nova Scotia Power and its main union issued a public warning in June after 40 thefts from substations and yards.

“This is a problem right across the country. Fortunately, no one in Nova Scotia has been seriously injured yet, but it is only a matter of time,” said Harris McNamara, Safety Lead with Nova Scotia Power.

Nova Scotia Power has stepped up its surveillance of its installations.

New policies are in place for visual inspections of facilities before employees enter.

“In some cases, thieves have removed the safety grounds in their attempt to get at the copper. That may make the whole installation dangerous to touch, including the fences,” said McNamara. “With electricity, you don’t get a second chance.”

“We’re at the point where we are trying to get our deliveries to be just in time, but even then, we’ve had installed cable just ripped right out of the conduits and they’ve been taking the big aluminum poles, too,” said Tony Decuzzi, vice president of electrical contractors, Black and McDonald.

“It’s always been a problem, but its probably gone up a bit because of the price. We’re trying to make it as difficult as possible, putting locks on containers and backing up track to block entrances.”

“We’ve certainly heard a lot more about it, but so far, it’s anecdotal with no real stats,” said Jeff Morrison of the Canadian Construction Association.

“Last year, we had a lot of heavy equipment thefts; this year with the rapid rise in base metal prices, we’re hearing more about copper thefts.”

As contractors and utilities tighten security — including adding video surveillance systems at sites and yards — police and municipalities are moving to introduce new rules for scrap metal dealers.

In Toronto, a proposed bylaw which would require photo ID and photo registration of sellers by dealer is on hold pending a court challenge to a similar bylaw passed in Durham, said Len Shaw, president of the Canadian Association of Recycling Industries.

“The challenge is under the Personal Information Protection Electronic Documents Act (PEPIDA),” said Shaw. “In any event, it won’t solve the problem because none of this stuff has identifying marks on it and if you make it difficult, they’ll just go to other jurisdictions.”

He said scrap dealers across Canada process about 16 million tons of metal scrap, some 75 per cent of it iron and the balance mostly copper, aluminum and nickel.

Dealers too have been hit, he said, with thieves jumping fences into yards to steal metals.

“We’re talking about a segment of the trade called peddlers,” he said, acknowledging the issue is being driven by soaring commodity prices. “But the solutions really are impractical. Our members are trying to be more proactive and work with the police. If they alert us to a theft by email we can forward it to our members. If they see a load come in that matches they can call the police. It has resulted in arrests.

“But the industry is so hot right now, we’re just scrambling to fill orders and get them out the door. The stuff doesn’t sit around.”

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