Copper thieves go boom

Copper thieves look for metal in all the bad places

While copper thieves aren’t known for their brain power, a new depravity is infiltrating their ranks: stealing sometimes live ammunition from military bombing ranges.

An Army Times/AP story today says bombing ranges have become prime hunting grounds for so-called scrappers, who are motivated by soaring commodity prices to take greater risks in their quest for brass, copper and aluminum. The scavenging causes headaches for the military, which cannot patrol every inch of the remote bases where spent ammunition, shrapnel and unexploded ordnance are easy to find. 

And since the Pentagon estimates up to 10% of bombs, missiles and grenades fail to detonate, well, many scrappers find that out the hard way. In May 2007 for example, two suspected scrappers removed a Vietnam-era missile from the Twentynine Palms base. It later exploded in their Barstow home, killing both men and destroying the apartment. Earlier this year, two workers were injured at a Raleigh, N.C., recycling plant when ordnance suspected of coming from Fort Bragg exploded, according to the AP story. 

After meeting with the Defense Department last month, the Institute of Scrap Recycling urged its members to stop accepting military scrap without knowing the source of the material, according to the AP. It also recommended the military create a system to account for the material it uses.

Copper theft is an epidemic crime across the nation and the world. Police in some states have reported that thieves are now targeting the growing amounts of empty, foreclosed houses to steal copper wiring. Of course, not all criminals are the brightest bulbs; some have been killed or maimed pulling out live wires. I reported last year that there was a growing movement by telecommunications vendors to offer rewards leading to the arrest of copper thieves. Since 2004, the price of copper has increased from 80 cents to close to $4 a pound as demand grows in China, India and Brazil, experts say.

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