Ag producers concerned about copper thefts in Larimer County

Recent thefts of copper electrical cables prompted the Larimer County Agricultural Advisory Board to ask the sheriff’s department to keep a closer eye on irrigation equipment.

“We would ask that the Sheriff’s department make personnel aware of the gravity of this situation and to increase the observation of sprinklers along their patrol routes,” Chair Val Manning wrote on behalf of the board in a letter dated March 27.

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The letter explained that in the process of stealing long electrical cables off the top of center pivot irrigation sprinklers, thieves have damaged pipe and fittings, which “may result in crop losses as well as the substantial cost of repairs themselves.” It cites reported thefts at the Colorado State University Agricultural Research, Development and Education Center and Grant Family Farms near Wellington as instances where “a vigorous investigation” is needed.

Sheriff Justin Smith said his deputies and investigators are on the case.

“Metal theft has been a huge problem for us throughout the county,” he said.

In the first six weeks of the year, there were seven reported metal thefts in the county, following 16 in the last six months of 2011, according to the sheriff’s figures. In addition to construction sites, thieves have hit individual electricians and plumbers as well as farmers. Outdoor equipment such as air conditioners have been ripped apart or simply hauled off.

While all types of metal have been stolen, copper is the most often pilfered. The skyrocketing price of the metal – from less than $1.50 per pound in 2009 to above $4.50 per pound in 2011 – makes it a prime target.

Widespread problem
The problem is not confined to Larimer County or even Colorado. States from Illinois to Georgia are considering or have passed laws increasing penalties for stealing or trafficking in stolen commodities metals.

In the 2011 session, the Colorado Legislature passed and Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law HB-1130, which regulates transactions involving metals with a market value of at least 50 cents per pound (except precious metals such as gold and silver). The rules require sellers to produce a picture ID for all sales. Buyers must photograph all sellers and their merchandise and hold on to purchase records for 6 months. Any purchase worth more than $300 must be paid for with a check, and employees of scrap dealers must be trained in and use the industry’s theft alert system.

“The new law gives us a little more muscle to deal with second-hand dealers,” Smith said. “We need information on who is selling, but so far compliance with the documentation regulations has been kind of spotty, so we can’t prove where it came from.”

For proven metal theft the penalties have been increased and now based on the weight of the material rather than the monetary value. Theft of less than 100 pounds of commodities metals is a Class 6 felony; 100 to 1,000 pounds a Class 5 felony; and more than 1,000 pounds Class 4.

Task force takes holistic view
HB-1130 also created a 26-member Commodities Metal Theft Task Force of law enforcement, metal recyclers, utilities and railroads that have been victims of theft, municipalities, the Department of Homeland Security and other interested parties to take a holistic view of the problem. The task force has met four times since last July, according to member RJ Hicks of Hicks & Associates, a Brighton-based lobbying firm. He said where previous bills addressed only one or two aspects of the problem, the task force discussions have been “eye-opening.”

“For example, law enforcement did not know that the scrap metal industry had a website to report metal theft and send alerts to dealers in a 500-mile radius,” he said.

The railroads and utilities have made district attorneys aware that the cost of metal theft includes replacement costs many times greater than the value of the metal, he added, and the aggregate cost should push cases above simple misdemeanors.

The biggest problem identified is not so much with established scrap dealers, but with what Hicks calls “mobile recyclers,” the ones who advertise on the side of the road that they’ll take anything, ask no questions and keep no records.

“As long as they continue to operate, a crackdown on reputable metal recyclers won’t do any good,” he said.

There may be economic relief on the horizon, however. The price of copper reached a three-month low of $3.70 per pound in mid-April, and global supplies are growing. While markets may remain tight through 2013, industry analysts expect prices to continue to drop and forecast an oversupply by 2015.