Crooks making off with metal

Soaring copper prices have led to a rash of wire thefts from industrial yards and isolated oilpatch sites.

Soaring copper prices have led to a rash of wire thefts from industrial yards and isolated oilpatch sites.

“Right now it’s a very lucrative business,” said Sylvan Lake RCMP Const. Gordon Marshall.

“As the price of copper goes up, there’s more incentive for people to try to steal it.”

Throughout Central Alberta, copper wire thefts are reported to police weekly.

“Every news bulletin we get we’re getting copper wire theft,” said Marshall.

Sometimes thieves will take just a few metres of wire.

Other times, hundreds of meters, or whole rolls will be stolen. Copper is worth almost $4 a pound on the market, although scrap yards pay less.

Brazen thieves are even snipping copper grounding wires from oilfield equipment, creating the risk of shocks or even explosions.

Marshall, who has some oilfield experience, said a huge amount of static builds up in equipment such as separators or compressor stations and grounding wires prevent sparking.

If a worker was to start operating equipment unaware it is no longer grounded “you’re looking at some serious endangering of life,” he said.

That’s prompted police to treat wire stealing in some cases as more than theft. In a recent case in the Eckville area a man was charged with mischief endangering life, which is punishable by up to life in prison, because of the danger posed by stealing grounding wire. The case is still before the courts.

It’s a difficult crime for police to investigate because the target sites are often in remote locations and the thefts may not be noticed for days, Marshall said.

Police have put out the word for people to be on the lookout for suspicious wire sellers.

Cpl. Shawn Boutin, who is with RCMP’s general investigation section for southern Alberta out of Calgary, said copper wire thefts have been rising with the prices. In 2006, 20 wire thefts were reported in Alberta. By 2010, that number had jumped to 220 and in 2011 there were 180 thefts. 2012 statistics were not available.

“There’s huge money involved,” said Boutin.

Red Deer detachment has routinely topped the list for reported wire thefts in recent years.

Boutin said a working group was formed involving RCMP, Edmonton and Calgary police forces and industry players, such as AltaLink, Telus and Epcor among others.

Police are building profiles of offenders, many of whom are connected to the drug trade and looking for quick cash. Repeat culprits are also tagged through a priority prolific offender program.

Other work involves identifying emerging trends and sharing that information with other police agencies, whose officers are given advice on what to look for.

For companies that have been hit, or are potential targets, police are offering tips on improving their security.

A Calgary Crown prosecutor has been assigned to deal with copper thefts. Among the strategies being pursued is to use the Environmental Protection Act to charge thieves who are illegally burning the insulation off cable to get at the wire inside.

“A lot of times what they’re doing is stealing copper wire from these remote sites and they are going to abandoned farms where no one’s going to bug them and they take their time and burn this stuff off,” he said.

“When they’ve got enough of a truckload then they bring it to these salvage yards.”

Only about 10 per cent of copper wire sold for salvage is stolen, he said.

But police welcome legislation that has been proposed requiring scrap dealers to collect information from sellers and report large or suspicious sales to law enforcement agencies.