Copper thieves mining Bainbridge Island, too

On a national scale, copper theft has been deemed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a threat to national infrastructure.

On a local level, the thievery is causing its own set of headaches for Bainbridge law enforcement, city personnel and local homeowners who find themselves victims of criminals who wreak havoc by cashing in on a metal at the core foundation of homes, buildings and government infrastructure.

A puttering economy and near-record prices for copper, platinum and other metals have triggered an increase in theft of items such as wire and piping, which are melted down and sold to scrap yards by the pound for quick cash.

“It can be a big score for criminals depending on the cost per pound,” said BIPD Det. Trevor Ziemba. “It’s all drug related for criminals to get their fix.”

Ziemba estimated there have been at least a half-dozen copper thefts on the island in the last two months. Public Works Director Lance Newkirk said the city was victimized in at least two copper and scrap metal thefts in the last six months. There has been a direct loss of about $2,000 in material losses, plus various displaced operational costs for labor to replace locks and copper wire cord that was cut and stolen from an emergency power generator.

Pump houses and copper wire meters were taken from city property; copper material has been lifted from the Washington State Ferry shipyard as well as the creosote plant and businesses; and construction cites have also experienced theft.

Vacant island homes have been a targeted and in one case, Ziemba said, it eventually resulted in the homeowner losing the home in a short sale after suffering more than $30,000 in damages. Thieves score copper from vacant homes by dismantling heat exchanges, cutting wires and tearing down copper piping.

Since copper lacks a serial number it makes it that much more difficult for the police to track down where the raw materials are going, Ziemba said. Local copper is being sold in Bremerton and in various metal scrap yards in Tacoma and out of state, he said. Bainbridge police have yet to make any significant arrests. Investigations are ongoing in Bainbridge and greater Kitsap County. Copper and other metal theft are taking on the form of both organized crime and as isolated individuals.

Massive-scale problem

The Department of Energy has estimated that copper theft is costing the country more than $1 billion annually.

In 2008, copper theft made headlines when the FBI released an unclassified report declaring copper theft as a major threat to basic functions of U.S. infrastructure, including electrical substations, cellular towers, railroads, crops and telephone lines.

The FBI report outlined an instance in which citizens in the town of Jackson, Miss., weren’t alerted to a tornado in April 2007 after the copper wiring for the sirens was stolen. Farmers in Arizona reportedly a loss of $10 million in damages after irrigation wells and pumps were stripped of their copper pipes.

The New York Times outlined a dire situation in Fresno, Calif., where the city decided to seal thousands of its manhole covers with concrete to deter thieves. In Picher, Okla., utility poles were taken down with a chain saw and thieves made off with 3,000 feet of wire, leaving citizens in a blackout.

In December 2010, the City of Tacoma was struck with more $250,000 in loses after thieves pulled the copper wire out of conduits in the mechanical room in the Murray Morgan Bridge. It left the bridge stuck in the down position, and the thieves left with some 300 pounds of copper and a salvaged value of about $3 a pound at the time.

Protect against theft

“The No. 1 thing citizens must do is to simply lock your doors,” said Ziemba. “Lock your things up. If you have thousands of dollars worth of copper then don’t buy a $10 lock to secure it. Invest in a security system and protect yourself.”

Ziemba also asked citizens to be alert for situations that seem out of place. Especially for realtors who conduct open houses, since thieves may use them as an opportunity to case houses will posing as a prospective homebuyer, Ziemba said.

“Just be aware and if you see something suspicious pay attention and report it,” said Ziemba.

Newkirk said the city has worked with the police department to improve facility lighting, upgrade security locks, increase police patrols and raise public awareness.

“Copper and scrap metal theft is a national problem that has recently manifested itself locally,” said Newkirk. “We continue to work with local law enforcement to identify the risks or threats to our infrastructure and will take appropriate security measures to mitigate those risks.”

Gov. Christine Gregoire signed Senate Bill 5312 in 2007 to increase penalties for metal thieves, including making it a misdemeanor for scrap-metal dealers to knowingly do business with a person convicted of a crime involving methamphetamine.

It also requires businesses to obtain personal information on the seller, including driver’s license number, cell phone, address and description of the seller’s license and vehicle.

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