It's gotten so bad that the Richmond County Sheriff's Office has been cracking down on copper thieves, which included the recent arrest of one man whom authorities say they caught carrying a large amount of copper wire into Newell Recycling Augusta-LLC on Molly Pond Road. Calvin Burnett, 25, of Augusta, is charged with causing more than $1 million in damages at the former Regency Mall, where 57 rooftop commercial air-conditioning units were stripped of their copper.
Copper couldn't be a duller or more un-glitzy commodity, yet its price has more than quadrupled since 2004 because of the rise of emerging global economies, especially China and India. The metal is widely used in construction, especially for pipes and electric wiring.
Even so, copper thieves must be desperate, because even with the soaring prices, they only get about $2 a pound at recycling centers. A heavy load can bring them a few hundred dollars, but the real loss to businesses and homeowners who are victims of the thefts are the damages left behind. They can total thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, or, as at Regency Mall, more than $1 million.
Sheriff's Lt. Tony Walden, who's heading the Richmond County crackdown, says copper theft reports have been going down in recent weeks, and the good news is they may go down even further, as copper prices have been taking a hit on the global markets in recent days.
Some states have been considering legislation to combat copper thieves. California, for instance, is looking at bills that would require recycling centers to fingerprint and photograph copper sellers and to pay them only by check. So far there's been little talk of that in our two-state area, and let's hope it stays that way.
Too many rules and regulations could stifle the recycling business, and that would not be a good thing. On the other hand, if copper prices resume their upward flight, something more will have to be done than having local police periodically drop in on recycling centers in hopes of catching thieves in the act of trying to sell ill-gotten gains.