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Copper wire thieves hit Caltrans signs

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Soaring copper prices and high demand from China has made the metal an attractive target for thieves, who have recently hit Caltrans equipment to steal the valuable copper wires. At the same time, increased enforcement by the Petaluma Police Department has reduced copper thefts in the city.

From 2011 to 2014, copper prices went up 350 percent as China started major construction products to build brand new cities from the ground up in an attempt to house a growing population. Imports from American precious metals companies skyrocketed. The business has become so lucrative that thieves have been stealing copper wherever they can find it — inside streetlights, electronic billboards and even off of the spools at unguarded service yards.

For Caltrans, the cost to replace stolen copper since 2008 is estimated at $7 million.

“The lighting and message signs we use on highway work is the most targeted equipment,” said Bob Haus, a Caltrans spokesman. “They’re in remote locations. People go there when no one’s working, strip the wires from our pole boxes and run away with the copper.”

Because it’s an excellent conductor, copper is used for most electrical wiring in the United States. As a result, scrap yards pay citizens for recycling copper products like pipes, wires, radiators and old kitchen equipment. Yards then send the scrap to a refinery to recover the pure metal to be reused. Because copper is so versatile, scrap yards have difficulty distinguishing between copper that has been legally recovered and stolen copper.

In Petaluma, PG&E business systems specialist Gary Quast has worked with scrap yards to help them identify stolen copper. In 2009, thieves entered a PG&E service yard in Petaluma and made out with several spools of copper wire, which later turned up in a scrap yard.

“If people come in and they want to sell you a giant spool with hundreds of feet of copper wire, there’s got to be some suspicion on where they got it,” he said.

Quast added that a prime target for copper theft is unguarded agricultural sites in the Central Valley.

“We’d hear stories of people ripping out low-voltage wiring out of street lights all the time. They’d use wire cutters, a screwdriver and some gloves,” he said. “Street lights are popular because they’re only at 120-volt currents. Some of the agriculture panels we install go up to 480 volts. Our biggest concern is if a thief wants to steal a transformer, which is a giant coil of copper wrapped around a steel core. They’ve got 12,000 volts running through those, and replacing any of those systems is a costly and time-consuming project.”

Petaluma was hit by a copper wiring theft spree in 2011, but incidents are down these days thanks to increased enforcement.

“We’ve only had two incidents of theft this year,” said Lt. Dan Fish of the Petaluma Police Department. “Both of them were at the same address, and involved an electrical breaker.

The company in charge said the overall cost estimate would be $2,000 to $3,000, but that might include labor and time expenses for repair and replacement.”

City Engineer Curt Bates and Parks and Landscapes Manager Ron DeNicola believe the reduced theft cases are a result of well-lit and monitored environments.

“The last time we received a copper theft report was a couple years ago on Ely Boulevard near the Southgate community,” Bates said. “Most likely, thieves came in the middle of the night, popped open the utility box and cut the cable. But these thieves prefer remote locations, away from residents. Stealing copper wire is a really obvious act.”

Bates said fixing streetlights that have had copper stolen could take as long as a week.

“Right now we’re considering adding a locking mechanism to the utility boxes,” he said. “It’ll make them harder to break into in the future.”

DeNicola added that since public parks are well-lit and surrounded by residential areas, thieves tend to avoid them.

“The most distressing thing right now in the parks is graffiti and wear-and tear,” he said. “There hasn’t been a copper theft in a while.”

To fight against copper theft on the highway, Caltrans has several new countermeasures in place, but Haas declined to comment on the details.

“I can say we’re trying ways to disguise the utility boxes, but I don’t want to go any further than that,” he said. “If we revealed all our secrets, thieves would be able to figure out how to break in again.”

(Contact William Rohrs at william.rohrs@arguscouri er.com.)