Line is drawn against copper wire theft
Wider public vigilance sought to battle alongside new legislation and increased law enforcement
No matter what security precautions Jeremy Tookey invests in his business the copper thieves come back.
For the past three years Tookey, the owner of Olds Electric & Lighting Ltd., has been victimized at least five times. He has lost more than $30,000 worth of copper wiring. He has installed wiring and fencing but they come back. He sought police help repeatedly. The RCMP does their best. But the copper thieves still return.
“It is frustrating,” said Tookey. “They come in all the time asking if we want to buy it. You see them driving their trucks and trailers around. We tell them we are not interested, that we buy from suppliers, and then we kick them out.”
The theft of copper wire in Mountain View County and throughout rural Alberta has reached epidemic levels in recent years. At a rising commodity market price of about $3.40 a pound, along with a salvage price of between $1.10 and $2.40 a pound, it is hugely attractive to the underworld.
Thieves spare no locale or situation to get it. They not only hit stores like Tookey’s but will target copper wires at transmitter sites, telephone poles, oil lease and electrical sites, and from communication towers in cities and towns.
Last month about 170 metres of TELUS communications cable was stolen from a site in northeast Calgary. Police said the theft, made by culprits who fled the scene through a farm field while dragging the cable behind a 4×4 quad, created a public safety concern as the crime temporarily cut landline service, including access to 911, to more than 400 customers. The theft was doubly troublesome for TELUS as the company is claiming it is losing about $20 million a year to copper wire thieves. It is costing tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars more for other businesses, notably in the oil and gas sector where the problem has intensified at remote rural locations, causing disruptions to service at significant expense to repair.
“We probably have at least a dozen a year, or at least one a month,” said Didsbury RCMP Cpl. Warren Wright of the problem in remote rural oil and gas sites. “The theft of this commodity is incredibly dangerous to oil and gas workers on those sites because by removing that cable they are creating an unknown risk with potentially deadly consequences for oil and gas workers, recreational enthusiasts and nearby residents.”
Wright said his office has not recently caught any of the copper thieves but other detachments in Central Alberta have. However, police are hampered in laying charges unless they can prove a theft, he added.
“Some of them (thieves) are still operating,” said Wright. “You can catch some but someone else will do it.”
However, there are recent initiatives over the past few months that may give some hope to weary and frustrated victims.
In June, the Calgary Police Service created a special unit to target copper wire thieves after a CBC transmitter site was hit when $50,000 worth of copper wire was stolen.
At Alberta RCMP K Division headquarters in Edmonton, there is no special unit specifically dedicated to copper wire theft. However, RCMP officials emphasized officers in the field and street are well aware of the problem and have the means to communicate and exchange key information and strategies to deal with the problem.
“It is like all hands are on deck. All of our officers are committed to putting together the information. We are always intelligence led, focused on targeted issues. We have to be agile and responsive,” said Staff Sgt. Shawn Lemay, a media relations officer at K Division. “We allocate special resources accordingly.”
Meanwhile, the copper wire theft issue has reached the Alberta Legislature.
Dave Quest, the Progressive Conservative MLA for Strathcona-Sherwood Park, has tabled a private member's bill, to be debated this fall, that would require sellers of scrap metals to present identification at the time of sale. His initiative will be considered by provincial legislators following the enactment of British Columbia’s metal theft law, which became law on July 23.
Quest said his bill will be a deterrent because it would create a paper trail for police.
Lemay welcomed his initiative but emphasized citizens have to be willing to work with police and provide extra intelligence if he or she sees or suspects a crime of copper theft is taking place.
“We are all stakeholders. We all have a role to play. It just doesn’t sit with the police. The entire community has to be engaged,” said Lemay. “They (citizens) need to ask the right questions. If the product is not coming from a certified manufacturer they have to find out where it is coming from.”
As for businessman Jeremy Tookey, he is willing to do his part but is doubtful a new law that requires proper identification will have a meaningful impact.
“Probably not. There are already problems with false identifications,” said Tookey. “As soon as you ask for it they will leave. It is still not going to stop them from stealing.”