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Desperate People Ripping Off Copper in One of Our Poorest Cities

From 2008 to 2011, metals stolen for resale to recyclers rose 81 percent nationwide.

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In Fresno County, the poorest county in California but also the number one agricultural county in the nation, farms are taking a catastrophic hit.  Thieves are stealing copper from water pumps, irrigation pipes and other farm equipment needed to grow major crops. The thefts account for 85 percent of the county’s rural crime, causing damage 10 times higher than the coppers’ scrap value, according to the Associated Press.

Some law enforcement officials blame Fresno’s meth addicts for the copper craze. Or they say that gang members who’ve served their time and are back on the streets have made copper wire theft their latest illegal business enterprise.

But it’s anyone’s guess, really, as to who is doing the damage. Fresno has a poverty rate of 26.4 percent- in some schools, half the students live below the poverty line.

As reports have spread over how much copper can yield—a night’s work in a cul-de-sac can earn thieves several thousand dollars in scrap—the universe of copper thieves has grown larger. At 3 a.m. one recent morning, the police caught a 41-year-old man and his teenaged son trying to pull copper from a streetlight using a child’s bike.

Thieves are seldom caught. But those that are usually charged with misdemeanor or felony vandalism. In Fresno, where the jails are overcrowded because of budget cuts, copper theft suspects—like any suspects charged with non-violent offenses—are usually out in a day.

 Only a handful of states have laws that address metal theft directly; those that put requirements on scrap yard dealers to document their transactions. In California, for example, scrap dealers are supposed to wait three days before paying recyclers for scrap metal in order for the metals’ origins to be traced. But a loophole gives any recycler with 30 consecutive days of sales clearance for immediate cash.

On the blackened streets of the city, crews of utility workers preemptively protecting streetlights – a plan that is costing the city about $800,000 – are treated like heroes by residents who’ve designed their lives so as not to be out after dark.

“Oh thank God,” said Greg Connor the other day, as he watched utility workers pack up their pick-ups after fixing a light that had blacked out his street  for over six months. “Thank God almighty, we’re free at last.”


Evelyn Nieves is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. She has been a reporter for both the New York Times and the Washington Post.

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