Tearing apart air-conditioning units for copper is a quick and dirty process that typically leaves the unit in shambles and leaking refrigerant. That refrigerant, usually Freon, contains particles that erode the planet's protective ozone layer.
In small quantities, say the 5 to 10 pounds of Freon in a residential unit, the release is mostly harmless, but many copper thieves target units at churches and businesses, where the potential copper haul is much larger.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency strictly controls the use of refrigerants and is slowly phasing out the use of all ozone-depleting substances, including Freon.
One of its tools for controlling the disposal and intentional release of environmentally damaging refrigerants is the Clean Air Act. Usually this affects scrap yards and mechanics, but the U.S. attorney for Northern Georgia recently prosecuted suspected copper thieves under the same provision.
Prosecutors say the suspects stole 35 industrial-size air conditioners from 14 public buildings and, in the process, released hundreds of pounds of Freon into the atmosphere.
Hart County Sheriff Mike Cleveland told The Athens Banner-Herald that he had requested the federal prosecution to strengthen penalties against copper thieves.
Cleveland said federal prosecution for violating EPA laws ups the penalty to 10 years, versus a few years' probation for stealing copper.
"All I'm trying to say is if the penalty is harsh enough, they'll stop or at least think twice," Cleveland said.
Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength said his investigators have never pursued federal charges against ordinary copper thieves.
The closest match in Richmond County to the damage done in north Georgia occurred in 2008, when two men reportedly caused $2.5 million in damage to air-conditioning units on top of Regency Mall.
Strength said his agency hasn't seen anything since that would justify federal charges.
Information from The Athens Banner-Herald was used in this report.