Copper thefts are on the rise in Barry County

Thursday, October 2, 2008

As the price of copper and other scrap metal has continued to rise, the number of copper thefts in Barry County have also increased.

"We have had several different instances of copper theft," said Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly. "We have had copper stripped from abandoned houses, chicken houses and electrical poles. We have also had people take the plumbing out from under trailers."

Although scrap metal theft has grown over the last few years, Epperly said that there has been a sharp increase in copper theft in Barry County over the last six months.

"We have had the copper taken off of approximately 100 poles," said Bill Shiveley, Barry Electric Cooperative general manager and chief executive officer. "This hasn't occurred all at the same time. We will have five or six here and 10 or 20 there.

"We have had copper stolen during storm situations when lines are on the ground," said Shiveley. "That has happened two or three different times."

Another recent copper theft occurred when a contractor was completing a line conversion for Barry Electric in the Wheaton area. A large roll of copper was taken while the contractor was transporting another roll of wire from the job site.

"We have had at least one roll of copper that we use to ground lines that is kept on the truck taken while the truck was parked," said Shiveley.

In addition to costing the community large amounts of money for repairs, copper theft increases the risk of injuries near electrical poles and sites.

"Stealing copper makes a very dangerous situation for our linemen," said Shiveley. "It puts our employees (and the community) in danger. It is also dangerous for the people who are stealing the wire."

Copper ground wires are current carrying wires, and some of the ground wires located outside substations contain very high volt currents, said Shiveley.

"We remind our employees to be aware and check the grounds in all situations," said Shiveley. "In storm situations you can be in a hurry though."

In order to try to stop some of the copper thefts occurring across the state, Missouri legislators passed Senate Bill 1034 this year. The bill, which went into effect on Aug. 28, upgrades copper theft to a Class C felony, which is punishable by up to $5,000 or twice the value of the stolen goods.

The new law also modifies the record-keeping requirements for businesses that purchase copper, brass, bronze and some aluminum scrap metals.

According to the bill, purchasers must maintain written or electronic records of scrap metal purchases that are over $50. The law includes an exemption for regular customers and business owners who generate scrap metal.

Purchase records must include a copy of the seller's driver's license or a state or federally-issued photo identification, current residential address and the date, time and place of the transaction. Records must be maintained for at least two years.

Scrap metal recycling businesses are prohibited from purchasing metal identified as belonging to a cemetery, political subdivision, electrical cooperative or any utility.

"If someone brings a large amount of copper to a recycling shop and the night before we had a large amount taken, the requirements of this bill will make it easier for us to know who to look for," said Epperly.

Although the new law will help deter some criminals, others go to great lengths to melt the coating off of and cut up copper wiring in order to sell it to metal recycling businesses.

"We have seen other metal thefts also," said Epperly. "Metal is easy to get to and offers thieves quick cash.

"The recycling shops have been busy with people who are bringing scrap metal in to recycle and are cleaning up Barry County, which is a good thing," said Epperly, "but this also gives thieves another opportunity."

Copper thefts increased 1,150 percent between 2005 and 2006. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, copper theft is a $1 billion problem.

"People should be alert to the high copper prices and the risk of thieves stealing from abandon buildings and other locations," said Epperly.

Individuals who notice suspicious activities near electric poles and other areas are encouraged to call the Barry County Sheriff's Department at 847-6556 or Barry Electric at 847-2131.

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