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Rural rip-off: Metal thefts a costly concern

Issue Date: February 22, 2006
Christine Souza

As market prices for copper, aluminum, brass and stainless steel have skyrocketed, so has the number of metal thefts in California and across the country.

The nation's utility and oil companies are some of the hardest hit, losing wire that is highly specialized and costs thousands of dollars to replace. In many communities, copper wire is being stripped from streetlights and telephone poles. Even newly constructed homes are being gutted of valuable metals.

Across California, farmers are discovering that the metals needed to run their operations are being ripped out of the ground and taken to the local recycler, who pays cash for the stolen metal. To the farmer, this crime is not just about lost aluminum pipes or copper wire; it can temporarily pull the plug on the entire agricultural operation, costing time, money and aggravation.

"I've worked a couple of incidences where farmers have been hit. Thieves are taking 15, 20, 30 feet of copper at a time. They get $20 or $30 worth of scrap out of it, but it is costing the farmer several thousand dollars to repair," said Danny McGlothlin, a detective for the Kern County Sheriff's Department Rural Crime Unit. "With diesel fuel thefts, the farmer can order more fuel and get it there the next day. However, a pump with the wiring removed can put him down for up to a week depending on the damage."

Keith Watkins of Bee Sweet Citrus operates farms in four counties stretching from Madera to Kern. Twenty-two brass valves were recently stolen from the citrus groves he manages in Richgrove in Tulare County.

"One weekend at three different ranches, thieves stole a bunch of 3-inch brass valves which are the main in-field valves we use," Watkins said. "They went in with a sledgehammer and busted the PVC that the valves were hooked to and took the valves. They didn't even cut them out. They just shattered the PVC."

Each 3-inch brass valve will run Watkins up to $40, but he estimates the total cost of repairs per valve to be about $150 with parts and labor. Tulare County Sheriff's Department deputies told Watkins that some thieves are actually recycling the stolen brass fittings with the PVC still attached. Thieves earn 5 cents a pound for this scrap and 75 cents a pound for the brass without the PVC.

Watkins has replaced the brass fittings with PVC valves, which he said are more difficult to adjust to achieve the proper pressure in the field.

"The problem is we farm about 3,000 acres and there are a lot of ranches that we haven't modified. You hate to tear something up if it is not broken," Watkins said. "I have a feeling that when people start irrigating in the spring, they will find a lot of valves missing."

In Kings County, Jeff Tyner of the sheriff's office Rural Crime Unit has been investigating metal thefts reported at area farms.

"We are receiving many reports of copper wire being stolen from irrigation pumps. The thieves cut the wire at the pump and rip it out of the ground either by hand or by a vehicle," Tyner said. "The wire is very expensive for the farmer to replace. Most of the time where the money becomes an issue is the labor costs to re-wire the pumps."

Hanford pistachio farmer Gary Robinson knows what it is like to find a stalled irrigation pump after it had been gutted by scrap metal thieves.

"On one ranch I found that 50 to 70 feet of copper wire was stolen from an irrigation pump and two panel boxes damaged. The cost to replace each box is about $8,000, and that does not include the labor required to put everything back together," Robinson said.

It is very difficult for farmers like Robinson to keep an eye on thousands of acres. Located about 10 miles east of Coalinga in southwest Fresno County, Robinson's farm is an hour's drive from the nearest sheriff's substation.

"We are currently pricing video camera systems that we will install near the pumps," he said. "We will have to install fences and security lighting as well. That is the only way we can stop them."

During another incident, Robinson discovered that 3-inch and 10-inch aluminum irrigation pipe was taken from his pistachio orchards. As a result, he is converting to drip irrigation and PVC irrigation pipe wherever possible.

William Yoshimoto, project director and supervising attorney for the Agricultural Crime Technology Information and Operations Network (ACTION), says metal thefts are on the rise at Central Valley farms.

"Metal thefts are huge now. The Central Valley is getting hit pretty hard in places like Kern, Fresno, Madera and Kings counties," Yoshimoto said. "In 2005, we doubled the amount of thefts and the value of thefts from the previous year."

In 2005, ACTION's 11 reporting counties experienced 255 metal theft cases that totaled a value of $1,137,978.

"The crooks aren't getting too much a pound, but if you steal 1,000 feet of copper wire off of transmission lines, that is a pretty hefty sum," Yoshimoto said. "Orange growers have had their wind machine motors cannibalized. Intake manifolds and radiators are getting stolen and dairymen are losing stainless steel. It is just incredible."

Law enforcement officers say the only way to prevent metal thefts is to start at the source—with recycling centers.

"We are finding that some of the recycling companies are not complying with the state laws," McGlothlin said. "Under the state law penal code, scrap dealers are required to make a due diligent effort to determine if the individual bringing in the material is legally entitled to it."

In Tulare County, sheriff's department deputies informed local scrap dealers of the law and later returned to follow up with the businesses.

"Some have done well, some have done poorly and some have done just terrible. They are not checking for proper identification so that they have some sense that the material they are taking in is legitimate," Yoshimoto said. "If they go through the proper steps to identify the person and document the transaction, when we follow up we have the opportunity to use the information to catch the crook."

San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department Detective George Baker said he plans to repeat Tulare County's approach and inform county recyclers of their responsibilities under the law.

"We want to crack down on recyclers so they quit accepting this wire that they know is stolen or is coming from utility companies. Our biggest problem is nobody is enforcing any of these rules, and we have to start enforcing the rules," Baker said. "If they stop accepting scrap metal that they know is stolen or they shouldn't be accepting, then the thefts will slow down or thieves will go out of the county. We don't think we will get rid of scrap metal thefts, but hopefully we will at least slow it down."

The Kings County Sheriff's Department reports that is has a good working relationship with J&H Metal, a scrap metal recycler owned by Harold and Cindy Green. The company has been in Kings County for more than 50 years.

"People who recycle must provide us with the proper documents including a drivers license or an identification card. We take this information from all of our customers," Harold Green said. "In all reality, probably half of the metal we get is stolen, but with a lot of the material that comes in here that is hard to distinguish."

If something does not look right, such as new copper wire being brought in by someone driving a old compact car, the Greens said, they will contact the sheriff's department.

"Sometimes you get a feeling," Cindy Green said.

Copper can be recycled at J&H Metal for about $1 per pound, but if it is shiny copper, then $1.50 per pound. Aluminum receives between 40 cents and 70 cents per pound.

Ultimately all of the material the Greens buy is resold to another recycler who exports the various metals to China.

"Here in California, the greatest customer for this material is China. They are gobbling up everything they can get ahold of and are building their own infrastructure with it. The country then sends it back to us in manufactured goods," Yoshimoto said. "The rise in the value of metal prices directly reflects what is happening with the scrap value."

(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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