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Its the Wild, Wild West for copper thieves
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Prospectors ravaged California’s countryside 165 years ago searching for gold.

They often ignored private property rights.

Today copper has replaced gold as the metal of choice. And instead of ripping apart hillsides with placer mining, digging mines and diverting water to destroy the landscape in their search for precious metal today’s prospectors are destroying everything from vacant houses to street lights to mine copper as well as other metals such as aluminum.

The cost to society is staggering. In Manteca alone copper theft costs taxpayers upwards of $80,000 a year. That’s essentially another firefighter or police officer.

But what can be done?

When police spot someone hauling copper and other metals on a bicycle, on foot or in a vehicle and they have probable cause such as a traffic violation to stop them, they are hard-pressed to determine if the metal was stolen.

If they’re diving through city Toters in search of aluminum and other recyclables, it’s pretty clear what they are doing. Swiping such items from Toters placed at curbside or in alleys is stealing as the material within the Toter belongs to the city. Recyclables in blue Toters help trim upwards of $200,000 off municipal garbage collection costs to keep your monthly garbage bills low as possible.

A state law enacted in 2008 has done little to slow down the theft of copper, aluminum irrigation pipes, manhole covers and a slew of other items that all end up being recycled.

The law mandated that recyclers require those bringing in items for recycling whether it is cans or metals to show a photo ID and take thumb prints and then withhold payment for three days unless they are a repeat recycler and have established an industrial account. It all sounds good but there’s one little problem: The law only applies to those who bring in items for recycling that have a scrap value of over $100.

It may have slowed down or stopped the wholesale theft of aluminum irrigation pipes from farming operations or aluminum bleachers from schools. But it did nothing to slow down the stripping or wire from irrigation pumps or stealing wiring from football stadium lights.

It’s a safe bet that the people who cost Caltrans $2 million in copper theft losses each year from street lights, metering lights, electronic signs and traffic signals aren’t organized criminals just as they aren’t in Manteca. The culprits are the homeless and meth addicts trying to score a couple of quick bucks.

It is highly doubtful they get a $100 or more at a time from their illegal activities.

Then there is the issue of them getting caught. If that happens and they are successfully prosecuted what are they going to get? Thanks to the Supreme Court order for capping California prison population the subsequent bumping of inmates down to county jails there isn’t exactly a lot of room at the inn for those convicted to serve time for misdemeanor theft. And copper wiring thieves know it.

Obviously trying to catch, prosecute, and punish the perpetuators is about as effective as burning money to stop the never ending copper and metal theft problem.

There’s only one way that would work and that’s to put in place a draconian state permit system for the right to get payment for recycled metals while leaving recyclable items such as soft drink cans and bottles out of the equation.

Cities and counties could issue the permits for $10 to cover basic administrative costs.

To add teeth to it, there would be penalties for recyclers that buy metal, regardless of the quantity, from people without valid permits. The first fine would be $1,000. The second fine $5,000. The third fine would be $10,000 plus revocation of permits to do business in California as a recycler.

Yes, the recycling firms would scream bloody murder. But let’s be honest, they are doing a hideous job of policing themselves. It’s understandable that they might not be able to question whether a couple of rolls of stripped wire were obtained illegally. But when individuals bring in fire hydrants, brass plates with inscriptions, manhole covers, and items that are clearly not routine salvage items and no one questions it they are helping criminals ply their trade.

Back in 2008 the recycling industry succeeded in watering down legislation before it was passed into law. They assured Californians that it would work without going overboard. Guess what, it isn’t working.

Either we get tough and put in effect a system that works or else we accept the fact cities such as Manteca are going to lose $80,000 year to copper thieves.


This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.