Desperate People Ripping Off Copper in One of Our Poorest Cities
Photo Credit: Darcy Padilla, Agence VU
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Editor's note: There are more than one million homeless people in America and 138 million people who live paycheck to paycheck. Many more are struggling, wondering how they'll make rent or get enough food. Those numbers are astounding. This is America. Many proudly think our society is fair, but the evidence overwhelmingly shows that fairness in America is a myth. In the weeks and months ahead, AlterNet will shine more light on America's economic injustice in an ongoing series, Hard Times USA. Since many have chosen to look aside, or think the traditional ways of doing politics will fix things, there is still much to learn about how this problem will be solved, or not solved. Read our previous poverty coverage here. Much more to come.
-- Don Hazen, executive editor of AlterNet
FRESNO, Calif.—The thieves strike in the middle of the night and work fast, in pairs or teams. They can make an entire neighborhood go dark in minutes. They screw open the street light maintenance boxes, find the copper wires and cut. Zip, zip.
While police nab copper thieves in the act, they can’t be everywhere. Come nighttime, some streets are as black as caves. Even if thieves stopped today, utility crews would need up to a year to fix all the damage. Meanwhile, darkened neighborhoods entice crooks bent on robbing houses, stealing cars or worse.
Lately, thieves have taken and created bigger risks, stealing copper from the lights, signs and metering signals on freeways that rim the city. Caltrans, the state agency in charge of the roads, has had to divert workers from fixing potholes, guardrails and fencing to repair damaged lights before some horrible accident happens. They too, cannot keep up with the copper thieves, who are striking several times a week.
As if Fresno, one of the poorest cities in the country, didn’t have enough problems, what with high unemployment and rampant gangs, crime and methamphetamine abuse. Now, the city of 509,000 in the heart of California’s Central Valley farm country is the epicenter of a plague of copper wire theft afflicting recession-ravaged cities across the country.
“We think we’re a year from having all the lights back,” said Lee Brand, a Fresno City Councilman who devised a plan to thwart thieves by having public works crews entomb the copper wire in over 20,000 maintenance boxes in quick-dry cement. But, he added, “There are a lot of desperate people out there.”
Since the price of copper has risen to record highs—to upwards of $4.50 a pound for scrap, from as low as $1 or so a pound five years ago—it has proven irresistible to cash-hungry scavengers everywhere. But places the recession has hit hardest, that are least able to afford another calamity, are bearing the brunt of the crisis. In Phoenix, Ariz., plagued by foreclosures, copper thieves hit AT&T stations more than 20 times last year, disrupting service to thousands and costing millions of dollars in repairs, security and lost revenue. In Haddonfield, N.J., a suburb a few miles from the busted slums of Camden, copper thieves have been stealing copper downspouts from single-family homes. In McDowell County, West Virginia, one of the poorest counties in Appalachia, copper thieves are doing serious damage to telephone lines, according to reports in scraptheftalert.com, which tracks thefts of copper and other recyclables.
From 2008 to 2011, when the recession was at its worst, metals stolen for resale to recyclers rose 81 percent nationwide, according to an insurance industry report released last spring. Copper accounted for 96 percent of the theft.
Streetlights and telephone lines are obvious targets. But thieves will steal copper wherever they could mine it. They break into padlocked foreclosures and bust the walls for copper wiring and pipes. They steal copper from air conditioners and hook-ups to major appliances, from statues in graveyards, from engines in cars. They black out schools, factories, day care centers, Main Streets. The Department of Energy conservatively estimates the copper wire theft costs the nation more than $1 billion per year.