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Plunging copper prices bring relief for agencies

By: BILL VOGRIN
May 15, 2009
0

The plunging price of copper over the past year has brought relief to government agencies that struggled to contend with brazen metal thieves.

Kurt Schroeder, Colorado Springs' parks, trails and open space manager, said the city's budget crisis left him with little money to keep replacing wiring and irrigation systems.

"We were spending a lot of money to replace the stolen property," Schroeder said.

Demand for copper worldwide more than doubled the price until it peaked at $4.08 a pound last July. Other metal prices also spiked, triggering a nationwide frenzy among thieves who stripped copper wiring from buildings, power poles and electric substations, stole aluminum bleachers and guardrails, even stole railroad spikes which they sold as scrap.

Today, copper is about $2 a pound and folks aren't risking electrocution to steal wire anymore. In Colorado Springs, scrap metal dealers are paying just $1.40 to $1.70 per pound of bare copper wire and tubing and they report fewer people bringing it in for cash.

In 2007-08, Schroeder's agency spent $50,000 replacing stolen wiring at city parks, ballfields, inline skating rinks and other facilities. Thieves darkened ballfields by taking wiring for lights. They cut wires to water fountains. They stole wire keeping parks department trucks plugged in during the winter.

Another costly target was the copper valves on irrigation systems in parks and medians. The valves cost $300 to $1,200 apiece and each time one was replaced, the city protected the new unit with a new $350 steel cage. It amounted to more than $100,000 in unexpected maintenance costs, including labor.

Colorado Springs Utilities lost more than 176,000 feet - about 33 miles - of copper wire in 2007 at a loss of $323,000 borne by ratepayers. The previous year, thieves stole $86,000 worth of wiring from Springs Utilities.

"We have noticed the theft of copper has gone way down from years prior," said Steve Berry, utilities spokesman. "But people still need to be diligent and look out for suspicious activity near light poles."

Berry said copper thieves would pull up next to street lights during daytime and start pulling wire.

"Those guys were getting pretty bold," Berry said. "They were putting on reflective vests, driving white trucks with fake lights on top. People need to stay on the lookout for odd behavior."

The Colorado Department of Transportation is still working to replace wiring to light towers along state highways, including the northbound exit from Interstate 25 at Monument and at Powers Boulevard and U.S. Highway 24. Thieves actually stripped wiring from 33 light poles on Powers in May 2007, costing taxpayers $36,000 to replace.

"We have noticed the theft of copper has gone down," said Bob Wilson, CDOT spokesman. "It's been fairly quiet lately. The cost makes all the difference."

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