Extra resources for students of State and Local Government 180, an upper-division GE class in the Government Department at Sacramento State University
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
San Francisco Chronicle: Copper theft a big cirsis for public agencies
Copper theft becomes a crisis for public agencies
Demian Bulwa, Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco ChronicleDecember 7, 2011 04:00 AM
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Photo by Dylan Entelis / The Chronicle
The traffic lights at Wilson and Daniels avenues in Vallejo are not fully functioning because of the recent theft of copper wire. The city converted the intersection to a four-way stop.
BART revealed Tuesday that copper thieves are bedeviling the system in more ways than stripping cable from its tracks. A project intended to speed trains in Contra Costa County, which was supposed to be done by now, was delayed 10 months after crooks stole hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of metal.
BART officials said they intend to spearhead a task force on metal theft in hopes of reducing a problem vexing numerous public agencies, utilities and businesses, costing millions of dollars a year.
One potential partner: Vallejo, where city officials said Tuesday that thieves have stripped copper wire from 77 streetlights and signal lights at five intersections since May. The cash-strapped city has been unable to replace much of the wiring, plunging some streets into darkness and forcing three of the intersections to be turned into four-way stops.
"BART is a public system," said Robert Raburn, a member of BART's Board of Directors. "This is a theft from the taxpayer."
Thefts on rise
BART officials spoke Tuesday in the wake of a series of attacks in which thieves have stolen thick cables that complete an electrical circuit by returning power to a substation. The latest theft was discovered at 4 a.m. Tuesday, said agency spokesman Jim Allison, when workers found a pair of 20-foot cable sections cut away in West Oakland.
BART also disclosed for the first time that two major thefts last December had delayed a $38 million venture, known as the Central Contra Costa County Crossover Project, that will allow trains to cross between tracks in Walnut Creek. The project, which will reduce delays that can affect the whole system, was supposed to be finished by the end of this year but now has been delayed until late next year, Allison said.
Huge spool taken
Allison said thieves drove off with a giant spool of copper cable from a contractor's yard, and the same crew or perhaps another ripped from the ground a long section of communications cable that had already been installed.
BART's insurance claim for equipment and labor was $500,000, Allison said.
Copper theft has been a problem for decades, but became particularly bad in the past eight years as prices for the metal rose along with demand from China and other industrializing countries.
In the past few years, metal thieves have damaged grave sites in Colma and gutted foreclosed homes. They made off with a famous church bell from San Francisco, a brass plaque in the Castro honoring assassinated Supervisor Harvey Milk, a bronze pelican from Novato and pieces of a memorial to victims of the 1991 Oakland hills fire.
Vallejo Public Works Director David Kleinschmidt, whose city emerged from bankruptcy last month, said Tuesday that thieves had stripped $200,000 worth of copper wiring from street lights and signalized intersections since May.
Most of the lights are still out. Two of the intersections have been repaired, but at three others signs declare, "Signal lights are nonfunctioning due to copper wire theft."
It's a lot of damage for a relatively small profit, Kleinschmidt said.
"They get away with about $25 worth of copper at a traffic signal, and the cost to repair it is over $20,000," he said.
A person can earn $3 to $3.50 a pound selling copper at a Bay Area scrap yard. The dealers, though, must comply with a 3-year-old state law that sought to decrease metal theft.
Under it, sellers and their goods are photographed, sellers must give their thumbprints, and they don't get their money until after a three-day waiting period.
The owner of San Francisco Scrap Metal, Pat Curtis, said she calls police when she buys something suspicious, allowing detectives to come out and take a look. But she believes most metal thieves don't want to wait three days to be paid.
"They take it to places where they're not conforming with the law," Curtis said.
Brandon Kooi, who authored a guide last year on metal theft for the U.S. Department of Justice, said there needs to be more collaboration between "stakeholders" in metal theft, including public agencies, businesses, insurers and scrap dealers.
Police, he said, must do something outside their realm, auditing dealers' purchases.
"Like in most crimes, the offender wants anonymity," said Kooi, an associate professor of criminal justice at Aurora University in Aurora, Ill. "The trick is developing a system where that anonymity is reduced. This type of initiative calls for police to be involved in the prevention end."