Law enforcement officials fighting the growing problem of copper thefts will get some help from a law that quietly passed the state Legislature as it wound down its session.
Industrial sites, electrical substations, vacant buildings and homes have become targets of copper thieves as the price of the metal more than doubled on commodity markets in two years.
Copper thieves have caused power outages in East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes as the crime has grown across Louisiana and the nation.
On the same day that a copper theft at a power company substation left thousands without electricity in Watson and Walker, an attempted copper theft in Rayville caused a $1.6 million fire in a cotton processing plant.
State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning said his office this year has investigated more than 20 fires that investigators believe to be related to copper thefts.
In addition to fires and power outages, copper thefts have resulted in electrocutions, including one last year in Jefferson Davis Parish. That occurred during an attempt to steal copper from a power line. People have died in four other states when attempting to steal copper from utility substations.
The people who lose their lives as a result of copper thefts usually are those attempting to steal copper wire, but the thefts pose dangers to electrical crews, contractors who enter substations and the general public, utility company officials say.
On Flannery Road, thieves cut ground wires at a Dixie Electric Membership Corp. substation, causing equipment to heat up so much that it melted parts of the concrete support pads, DEMCO spokesman David Latona said.
A contractor who had gone to the substation to spray pesticide noticed the problem. Latona said that if the contractor had touched the equipment, he could have been electrocuted.
Latona said the loss of copper and the damage caused during the thefts are expensive for power companies as well as frustrating for neighborhoods that lose power.
Developers and people building their own homes are also among the victims. Air-conditioning units get stripped of copper tubing and wire gets ripped from houses under construction. The damage done in stealing wiring often surpasses the value of the copper stolen, said Stan Carpenter, chief of detectives for the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Thieves sometimes tear the Sheetrock or wallboard out of homes to get to the copper wire in the walls, he said.
“They have no respect,” Carpenter said of such thieves, adding that they even steal air-conditioning units from churches.
In Zion City, thieves did $34,000 in damage at the S.E. Mackey Center by stealing copper from the center’s air-conditioning units, said Robert Allmon, director of the facility owned by Full Gospel United Pentecostal Church.
Law enforcement officers have complained that tracking people who commit such crimes is difficult because of the ease of selling stolen copper. They got together with utility companies and builders to back House Bill 195, which worked its way through the Legislature with little difficulty and passed the Senate shortly before the end of the 2011 regular session.
Under the pending law, the buyers of scrap metal will have to obtain signed statements of ownership of the materials from the sellers in addition to recording the identification of the sellers, said Rep. Clif Richardson, R-Baton Rouge, author of the bill.
In addition to record-keeping requirements on what they buy and from whom they buy it, scrap yards will be prohibited from paying cash for the copper. Instead they will have to pay by check. That will give law enforcement another paper trail to help in tracking down copper thieves, said Richardson.
Bob Anderson is the Florida Parishes bureau chief.
His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.