The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

April 3, 2013

Thieves take record amount of copper in Utah

Three miles of copper wire stolen



They snuffed out almost a dozen light poles along a mile of highway between 1000 North and 1800 North, toward the outer limits of Salt Lake City. The missing coiled wire will cost between $50,000 and $60,000 to replace, officials say.

UDOT spends $300,000 to $400,000 a year to replace stolen copper, officials said. To combat the thefts, the department is considering replacing the copper wire with aluminum wire, which proves less lucrative at recycling sites. But aluminum tends to short out more easily. Engineers are also working on a plan to bury light boxes along the road underground to make them harder to find.

A few years ago, "when the recession hit, it got really bad," Hibbard said, adding that the rate of thefts seemed to climb alongside unemployment rates.

With other similar cases in Utah, officials sometimes find car or bicycle tire tracks. That was the case for one recent, smaller theft about a mile south of this one.

But the department has not found such signs in this heist, said Hibbard, the lighting engineer.

"The most evidence I've seen is those beer bottles over there," he said, adding, "That's the curiosity. It seems impossible that someone didn't see something and say something."

At trade-in sites, it's hard for workers to distinguish thieves from electricians. Wire from highway lighting looks pretty much the same as demolition scrap, said Mark Lewon, president of Utah Metal Works in Salt Lake City. Electricians, he said, routinely turn in up to a few thousand pounds of copper wire.

"Unless they're wearing a sign that says they're a thief," Lewon said, there's no way to tell if the metal is stolen.

In total, the wire stolen in this heist could return between $5,200 and $9,000, according to rates offered by Lewon.

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