Red Gold Rush: The Copper Theft Epidemic
Copper has never been more valuable, or more stolen. Inside the metal theft epidemic and CSOs' struggle to contain the problem.
February 01, 2007 — CSO —
In a decaying corner of Detroit, behind a box store, along a trash-strewn scrape of urban ruins, surrounded by trees that are either dead or sag like they wish they were, thick black smoke rises against a gray sky. It's Halloween afternoon, and Michael Lynch, CSO of the utility DTE Energy, in shined black shoes, a dark suit offset by a crisp blue shirt and a bright, patterned tie, is cutting through the blighted patch, following his eyes, and his nose, toward the smoke.
Metal thieves, Lynch knows, burn off the insulation that sheathes the copper wires that carry his company's product—electricity—because often that's how scrap yards want to buy it, without insulation. But also, that's where the name of the company the wire was stolen from would be. At any rate, the sheathing is petroleum-based. Burning it creates an unmistakable cloud that smells like a car accident. Police have made major busts when they happened to see or smell this smoke.
Recalling the events of that day, Lynch says he isn't setting out to track down a metal theft. He is out in the field with one of his investigators looking for examples of torn-down power lines for a local TV news crew that wants to do a story on metal theft. But while Lynch is in the field, a DTE customer says that thieves have stolen wires off the poles in front of his house, cutting off the power. The customer adds that he thinks the thieves are burning the wire nearby, and he points the way.
The intelligence is sound. Lynch finds a column of flames six feet high rising from a dilapidated cement slab. Tending the fire is a thin man in brown pants, a hooded sweatshirt the color of shiraz and a gray baseball cap pulled low over his goateed face. Lynch is not normally in the field, so he doesn't think about the danger of confronting a man who could be high or armed, or both. Lynch's arrival (and probably his wardrobe—this was no cop) startles the thin man, but luckily he shows few signs of aggression. Lynch begins to ask questions politely. Where'd the wire come from? How much do you have? Where is the rest of it? Where do you sell it? How much do you make?
As Lynch receives answers that range from useful to obfuscatory, he hears a rushing noise below his heels. He looks down and is startled to spot a black hose shooting water along the ground. Lynch grabs the hose and aims it at the fire.
Later, Lynch would put it all together. What he had found was a regular burn site for metal thieves. In fact, it is the perfect burn site, with a concrete surface to burn on and available running water to control and put out fires. Also, the site is surrounded by metal to steal. A nearby communications tower had already been looted so much that, at one point, 911 service was knocked out. Plus, there is a scrap yard nearby where the stolen metal can be sold. If the yard refuses, other buyers are available close by. For 50 cents on the dollar, Lynch says, you can walk up to them with a grocery cart full of any metal, without ID, and sell it no questions asked. The entire supply side of the metal theft economy is within walking distance of the fire Lynch is dousing.
Soon the fire's gone. With only pungent gray smoke crawling away now, Lynch directs the column of water spilling from the hose to land on a tangle of red wires that, from a distance, look like the entrails of roadkill. Even without sheathing to positively identify them, he thinks they're DTE wires. "It's like knowing you're looking at a Chevy," Lynch says, "even though someone took the emblems off." An investigator who is with Lynch calls the police and then snaps a photograph of the improbable scene; the thin man in dark clothes, less than a yard away from Lynch, protests angrily. Lynch, in his smart suit, his preternaturally blue shirt, is wielding the hose and saying something back, but he's not looking at the thin man. He's looking at the metal.
All CSOs should be looking at their metal, devising ways to protect it and contributing to the networks that are being developed to disrupt the black market for metal. The metal theft problem affects not just utilities but all companies that have infrastructure, which is just about all companies. If you have a metal fence, it's at risk of being stolen. If you have construction sites, metal will be taken from them. If you have unguarded rural outposts, they will be raided. No metal is safe.
The Laws of Domestic Supply and Chinese Demand
China needs metal, and junkies need crystal meth. Where these two facts intersect, there's metal theft.
These two facts intersect every day, everywhere. Thieves are risking their lives and others' for metal. Thieves yank down live copper power lines and remove grounding wires from electrical substations, rail lines and wind farms. They snatch wire and plumbing from new housing and business park construction sites, or sometimes from existing houses. In Detroit, The Kronk Gym, a legendary boxing basement where heavyweight champ Tommy Hearns once sparred, was already on the ropes financially; when thieves stripped it of all its copper pipes, The Kronk closed for good. A statue known as a Battle Cross, commemorating the war on terrorism, was snatched from its stand in Yakima, Wash. "Reclining Figure," a 2.1-ton sculpture by artist Henry Moore, was stolen from a museum in England. At auction, the sculpture was worth $5 million. As scrap metal, it would fetch maybe $10,000.
Thieves with a chain and a truck will pull down municipal light poles to get the copper wire out. They'll get a chain saw or a Sawzall or an ax, and cut down a utility pole. If they don't have any of those, they'll climb the pole. In any of these cases, they'll leave behind $5,000 of damage to extract a few hundred dollars' worth of copper. No metal is sacred: Cemetery memorials are snatched, and so are the roofs of churches. Wherever there is metal—copper in particular but also aluminum, zinc, nickel and bronze—there is someone stealing metal to sell it for a little cash to support themselves or their drug habit. For CSOs who have any inventory of metal, it is the most significant physical security concern today.