Copper thefts drop
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- New laws designed to crack down on copper theft in West Virginia seem to be working, state lawmakers learned Monday.
But an increase in out-of-state or transient scrap metal dealers threatens to undermine the progress police are making to curb thefts.
Frontier Communications reported that copper-wire cable thefts dropped from 200 to 130, when comparing the first nine months of 2011 to the same period this year.
West Virginia State Police also said copper theft reports have steadily decreased -- from 50 during the first three months of this year, to 35 during the second quarter, and down to 21 during the past three months.
"Copper thefts are down significantly," said Bryan Stover, corporate security specialist at Frontier. "Hopefully, that trend will stay the same."
In June, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed into law two new bills designed to clamp down on copper theft. One bill makes it a felony to steal copper cable and disrupt telephone or utility service. The other law restricts the sale of copper and other metals at scrap yards across the state.
"The laws seem to be working, but we're still in the early stages," State Police Capt. Bill Scott told members of a joint House-Senate committee Monday. "It's still hard to gauge."
Stover said telecommunication firms, utilities and railroads are working closely with law enforcement authorities and scrap dealers.
"We have to work together," Stover said. "I think this shows we are working together. Now that the word is getting out that you can't do this, it's a real deterrent."
Stover said Frontier customers typically lose service when thieves swipe copper-wire cable strung across telephone polls.
During the June 29 derecho, thieves also stole 20 of Frontier's backup generators, which are housed at remote sites, Stover told lawmakers during Monday's interim meetings.
Roland Fisher, president of the West Virginia Scrap Dealers Association, said his organization's members are following the new rules and cooperating with utilities and law enforcement agencies.
Under the new law, people who sell copper and other scrap metal to recyclers must fill out paperwork and show a photo ID.
"The important thing is that the recycler has all the information on the seller," Fisher said.
However, Fisher said transient scrap dealers from states as far away as Texas and Michigan bring trucks to West Virginia and buy scrap metal.
"The gypsy dealers are a lot harder to stop," he said. "It's very difficult to control."
Such transient dealers also buy platinum stripped from vehicles' catalytic converters, said Ruth Lemmon, director of the West Virginia Automobile and Truck Dealers Association.
Thieves have stolen catalytic converters from auto dealer lots, shopping centers, schools, and even from a hospice organization's parking lot. Lemmon has received reports of thefts in Parkersburg, St. Albans and Wheeling in recent months.
Thieves can remove a catalytic converter from a car or truck in as little as 40 seconds, she said.
"It's a very serious issue," Lemmon said Monday. "It's our belief that it's the gypsies who are buying them. I don't think it's the legitimate scrap dealers."
The new law requires scrap dealers to fingerprint anyone who sells five or more catalytic converters at the same time.
"It's not your established scrap yard that's buying this stuff," echoed Chris Bower, special agent with the CSX railroad police. "It's the smaller, back-door, mom-and-pop operations. These new scrap yards are springing up almost daily, and they know it's illegal to purchase stolen material."
The new law also is designed to make it more difficult for transient scrap dealers to operate in West Virginia.
The rules require operators to have a business license, a permit through the Department of Environmental Protection, a scales certificate with the Division of Labor Weights and Measures section, and a registration with the Secretary of State's office.
Some lawmakers questioned whether a drop in copper prices led to fewer thefts. Fisher and others said copper prices declined earlier this year, but have rebounded over the past three months -- at a time when thefts decreased significantly.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.