The new 'gold' rush
Area thieves are cashing in on the increased price of copper they pilfer from a number of sources
Gold may have hit $1,000 per ounce, but local police and utility companies are worried about another metal that is quickly becoming precious: copper.
Up from just 80 cents per pound five years ago, copper is now trading at about $3.60 per pound, making the metal used to conduct telephone conversations and electricity much more valuable.
This, say police, is likely behind a rash of copper thefts in the past two months from Southwest Portland, Tualatin and Tigard.
Thieves are taking everything from copper telephone wire to bronze grave markers and selling them for scrap.
Longtime property owner Arne Nyberg has felt the effects firsthand. A former furniture store built in 1976 and left vacant for the last three years was demolished in Tualatin last week because thieves had stripped the property of its copper wire and piping, not to mention the copper parts in the rooftop compressors and gas-powered heaters.
'With the copper gone, its useful life was gone,' Nyberg said, adding that initial estimates put the cost of replacing just the copper wiring at around $80,000.
'To put it back into action, it would have been more than what the building was worth,' he said.
Nyberg said he believes the thieves were well organized, likely with flashlights and motor vehicles, and probably took months to take away all of the metal, which included long, heavy pipes.
The property manager said he doesn't have a plan for what will be built there, but laments the fact that he will be paying property taxes on a bare lot.
'That's an income source that's gone,' he said.
Officer Brian Hughes of the Portland Police Bureau said most thefts occur in the middle of the night 'when they don't think anyone will be awake and watching.'
John Davies, a spokesman for Verizon, said thefts of copper phone lines not only hurt the company, but its customers and possibly the thieves themselves. For example, a man in California was recently electrocuted when he tried to steal 'live' copper wire.
'These people who do this are really putting their own life on the line,' Davies said. 'It's not something that you can do lightly.'
At one incident last month in Tigard, approximately 320 feet of telephone line was damaged around 2:30 a.m. when thieves removed a length of it near the intersection of Southwest Bull Mountain Road and Southwest McFarland Boulevard. The criminals were not successful in getting away with the large copper wire, which the responding officer guessed was attached to a vehicle and then dragged several hundred feet after it was ripped off the pole.
A Verizon representative told the officer the company would have to spend $6,000 to $8,000 to repair the damage. The wire, which the officer estimated at about 100 pounds, would have fetched only a couple hundred dollars for the assailants.
In another incident, about 600 Qwest customers along Southwest Dosch Road in Portland were without service for several hours while crews repaired a line there. A caller reported hearing a loud noise also at around 2:30 a.m. on Friday, March 3, and noticed a downed line across Dosch Road.
Police worry that this type of crime may increase as prices for copper rise. Hughes called for stronger laws requiring scrap metal dealers to help ferret out dishonest suppliers. But some lawmakers say they want to give House Bill 3026, which just took effect Jan. 1, a chance to work. The law requires metal dealers to get a description and license plate number for the vehicle of a seller, a copy of their photo identification and video surveillance or photograph of the seller.
Until then, Davies asked that the public keep an eye out for unmarked vehicles and unidentified personnel working on the lines, particularly at odd hours. He said utility crews will always have logos on their trucks and uniforms.
'If anyone sees a crew working and it looks like they don't belong, call law enforcement,' Davies said.
(Times reporter Jennifer Clampet contributed to this story.)