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Thieves outside central banks are lured by metal money too

Section: Daily Dispatches

Thieves Lured by Shine of Metal Money

Phil Couvrette
CanWest News Service
Sunday, July 8, 2007

Aluminum billboards disappearing in Vancouver, stainless steel tanker trucks reported stolen in Quebec, a copper wire theft in New Brunswick resulting in a death, beer kegs in Nova Scotia, and a two-tonne bronze statue snagged from an Ontario park.

Across the country no metal item seems too big or too small as police report an increasing number of incidents they are associating with the growing black market for scrap metal.

The phenomenon is nationwide, but British Columbia has seen the most frequent incidents, says Len Shaw, executive director of the Canadian Association of Recycling Industries, while Ontario takes the cake in terms of the volume of metal stolen.

In January, thieves made off with aluminum bleachers at a baseball diamond in Ucluelet, B.C. The province has been dealing for months with the theft of scrap metal from Vancouver billboards and memorial plaques removed from park benches in Nanaimo, among other targets.

"B.C. has very specific social problems, drugs, etc.," Shaw explained. "They're looking for cash. They go steal a billboard made of aluminum for quick money."

The metals that are getting the most attention from thieves are bronze, stainless steel, copper, and aluminum.

Metal theft spares no industry or borders. According to the California Farm Bureau, metal theft in rural areas there doubled in 2005 and shot up another 400 per cent in 2006, so the state is now considering legislation to make it harder for thieves to make a quick buck off stolen scrap.

In Michigan authorities tripled the deposit on beer kegs to discourage thieves from selling them to scrap dealers.

Shaw says the phenomenon isn't necessarily new, but the size and frequency of thefts are, boosted by the fact scrap metal is a basic supply and demand issue and commodity prices are high all over the world.

But copper is a prized metal and there is a shortage in inventories, leading to higher prices, which in turn is encouraging more thefts across the nation's construction and utility sites.

The price of copper reached an eight-week high of US$3.5935 a pound -- it was US$1 a pound in 2003 -- at the New York Mercantile Exchange this past week. It has been fuelled by the U.S. housing boom and, more recently, China and India's seemingly boundless growth.

Often outshone by more precious metals, copper is commonly used in many daily items, for electricity, computer components, data and phone transmissions, plumbing, as well as various household appliances.

And some thieves will take great risks for a few metres of copper wire.

In May an attempt to break into a New Brunswick power substation to steal copper wires resulted in the electrocution of one of the two thieves.

There have been 75 break-ins at substations across the province in the last 18 months, despite tighter security.

"Some folks are just willing to take that risk," observed Sgt. Greg MacAvoy of the Charlotte County, N.B., RCMP. "Commonly, we find that a lot of folks involved in this type of activity are desperate for cash to support an addiction and are willing to do all sorts of things."

While metal fever seems to be spreading across the country, some regions are noticeably spared. Alberta has reported few incidents, probably due to the province's current boom, said Shaw, of the recyclng industry association.

"I guess even the thieves out there have jobs," he said with a laugh.

In his quiet corner of southwestern New Brunswick, MacAvoy said that in his 15 years in the RCMP, it's only this spring that cases of metal theft really started surging.

"The price of metals is rising, making them a little more appealing," he said. "Several years ago copper wire probably wouldn't have been at the top of their list."

Local government officials had recently been noticing how aluminum road signs seemed to be disappearing at a growing frequency, he added.

In addition to the value of the metal stolen, inconvenience costs also have to be factored in, MacAvoy said, such as reconstruction costs, extra man-hours of work and interruption of public services.

Overall, the RCMP said it doesn't have a specialized team investigating metal theft, but if thefts continue at this rate, community groups, businesses, and even governments may start clamouring for some kind of national plan.

Among the more peculiar items recovered from scrap yards recently was the 135-kilogram bell stolen from Plymouth-Trinity United Church in Sherbrooke, Que. It was recovered in a Montreal scrapyard last March.

Parishioners were fortunate the mass of yellow brass only made it 150 kilometres away. In some cases, large items have quickly been sent overseas.

Last December a two-tonne bronze statue of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko was pulled from its park perch in Oakville, Ont. It's believed to have been shipped to China to be melted down. Only its head was found.

How big does metal theft get? Quebec's trucking association is concerned it is being targeted by metal thieves after a dozen stainless steel and aluminum tankers were stolen in the last couple of months. It suspects their rigs are also joining the scrap heap after being stripped of valuable steel.

"They don't show up at a local scrap yard," Shaw said of large items. "They're pretty much, we expect, put into a container and shipped overseas."

The metal theft boom has given scrap dealers a bad name, Shaw points out, though they are also frequent targets and his association has promoted ethical business practices.

"We are a very large target for these types of thefts," Shaw stressed. In addition, it's hard to track down where much of the material comes from.

"Police are having tremendous difficulty obtaining convictions because they are unable to do that," he said.

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