Although tougher laws have been passed, officials in South Carolina say metal robbers continue to plague homeowners, churches, government agencies and utilities.
The Greenville News reported that thefts continue despite a decline in copper prices. The continued thefts have led lawmakers to consider even tougher laws targeting the recycling of metal taken from air conditioners.
Current law requires sellers of copper to first obtain a permit from their local sheriff’s office before taking their metal to a scrap yard.
Corey Lyon, a sales and service manager for Roto-Rooter Plumbers in Greenville, remembered the case of a woman who returned to Greenville after spending time in a Columbia medical facility and discovered her home heavily damaged. Copper thieves stripped the metal from her heating and air conditioning unit, taken wiring, a water heater and busted out all her copper pipes. For maybe $800 in metal, Lyon said, they did about $25,000 in damages, which the woman couldn’t afford to pay.
“They’re brutal about it,” Lyon said of the thieves. “The way they take it out makes it really hard to replace. They’ll bust it off at the floorboard.”
The thefts have spurred lawmakers to propose even tougher laws aimed at the recycling of metal from air conditioners. Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Columbia pastor whose church was vandalized more than a year ago for copper, causing $100,000 in damage, says it may be time for severe penalties for anyone who vandalizes a church or buys metal stolen from a church.
“If there are states with hate crime statutes, let’s just make this something like that,” he said. “If you hit a place of worship, then the penalties will be so severe that somebody wouldn’t even risk being caught on that.”
Some utilities say they have seen a reduction in thefts after the law was passed. Mark Quinn of Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina says members generally have seen far fewer thefts since the law was enacted in the summer of 2011.
Other utilities aren’t seeing that trend.
Nearly $5,500 in copper ground cable and other materials were reported stolen from Verizon Wireless and AT&T over a week’s period from several locations in southern Greenville County, a deputy said. In each of the cases, the copper was removed from the ground around a cell tower’s fenced area, according to the deputy.
Sen. Larry Martin of Pickens, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has introduced legislation that would only allow the coils to be sold to scrap metal yards from a certified technician, a licensed contractor or the air conditioning unit’s owner, provided they show a bill of sale for the replacement unit.
Martin said the damage caused by copper thieves is like a thief after a $10 bill on the front seat of a car who destroys the car in an attempt to get it.
“We have to send a message that we’re going to ratchet up the law another notch to try and provide a deterrent to it,” he said, “particularly with these scrap metal dealers who take this. They have to know where it’s coming from.”