Copper theft rising in Canada alongside global commodity prices

April 29, 2008
Utility companies among those hardest hit

VANCOUVER - Monitoring the price of copper is not usually considered routine police work.

But with copper now trading at record highs, police across Canada say tracking the commodity is one way to help crack down on metal thieves aiming to cash in on rising prices.

''From a law enforcement perspective, what makes it so interesting is that it is the only time we see a direct link between street level crime as a direct result to what's happening on the London and New York Stock Exchanges,'' said Det. Const. Andria Cowan, the Toronto Police Service's dedicated ''copper cop.''

Each time the price of copper hits a new record, as it did recently surpassing $4US a pound, Cowan said she notices a spike in theft.

She began seeing a ''dramatic increase'' in the crime about two years ago, which is about the time copper prices started to surge.

The price of copper has quadrupled since the summer of 2005, when it traded at about $1US a pound.

Utility companies, such as BC Hydro and Ontario's Hydro One, are some of the hardest hit victims, as are telecommunications companies such as Telus Corp. (TSX:T) and Bell Canada (TSX:BCE).

Thieves target copper cables at remote utility substations and along telecommunication lines, as well as copper tubing in empty homes or those under construction. The stolen wire is then sold to scrap metal dealers, currently for more than $3 a pound.

Late last year, police in Quebec busted an organized-crime operation that they say peddled more than $2 million in stolen copper by breaking into private companies and Hydro-Quebec installations.

Hydro One, Ontario's main power transmission company, reported a record 58 incidents of copper theft so far this year, and about 200 thefts for all of 2007.

Vancouver-based Telus, Canada's second-biggest telecom company, reported 58 cases of metal theft in 2007 and more than a dozen incidents so far in 2008, said spokesman Shawn Hall.

The latest theft was this past week in Parksville, B.C. north of Nanaimo, where 550 customers were left without service for hours after thieves stole 150 metres of copper cable along a highway.

Hall said while the theft is costly, reaching about $2 million in 2007, the cut to service, including 911 access, is dangerous for the phone company's customers.

Telus said it is starting to switch to fibre optic cable and like other corporations is considering marking its copper cables so that they can be identified if stolen.

Meantime, municipalities such as Vancouver and Toronto are trying to enforce bylaws that require scrap dealers to record what they buy.

Len Shaw, executive director of the Canadian Association of Recycling Industries, said copper theft is giving his industry and legitimate scrap dealers a bad name.

He is lobbying to have provincial governments, and ultimately Ottawa, come up with a more co-ordinated approach to help fight copper theft.

Shaw said having cities try and tackle the problem independently ''just moves the material around and doesn't solve the problem.''

Also, while copper theft from corporations and homes is a problem, Shaw said theft directly from scrap yards is also an issue.

He said more than 40 per cent of the world's copper is produced from recycled material, which, along with rising copper prices and demand for the metal in China, is what has heightened demand.

''People don't realize that, although (scrap dealing) looks like a private individual business .. it is part of a major industry worldwide,'' Shaw said.