As cost of copper soars, so do brazen thefts in isles
Skyrocketing copper prices have spurred thieves in Hawaii and across the country to ransack homes, rip wires out of lampposts and break into warehouses to steal and sell scraps of the metal.
According to officials from metalprices.com, a Colorado-based media outlet for the industry, a worldwide economic boom fueled mostly by development in China has driven up the price of copper substantially since last year. Metalprices President David Behr said copper was listed at 77 cents per pound last July. It was listed at $3.71 per pound on the New York Mercantile Exchange Thursday.
"It's ridiculously high," Behr said. "Historically speaking, it's out of the ballpark."
Honolulu police said they have seen an increase in copper thefts, even to the point where thieves are forcing their way into businesses to get what they want. On Tuesday, police found a man and a woman allegedly sawing off copper tubing from the back of industrial air conditioning units after they had broken into a Kanakakui Street business in Kalihi.
Both were arrested for investigation of second-degree burglary.
"Folks are getting a little bit more desperate, to the point where they're putting themselves at risk for a burglary arrest," said Lt. Sherman Chan, of the Kalihi Police Theft/Burglary Detail. "They go out with pipe cutters and hacksaws, and they steal pipes and gutters and roof tiles.
"We're seeing it all over."
Chan said his officers have arrested about five or six people this year allegedly involved in copper thefts, including three men who were arrested for stealing two fire hydrants in May. The suspects allegedly climbed a fence along Puuhale Road and carried the un-installed fire hydrants into their car, then tried to sell them to CM Recycling on Sand Island Access Road. Company officials turned down the suspects' offer and called police, who arrested them.
In Pearl City, police investigators said they have had 12 cases involving copper thefts from April to June. One of the more high-profile cases involved the theft of about a mile of copper wire along the H-2 freeway in May, which left dozens of lights along the freeway still inoperable.
"Our early estimates said 50 lights were affected, but now it looks more like 75 lights are out," said Department of Transportation spokesman Scott Ishikawa.
"We're still trying to figure out if we can secure the wires while still allowing them to be accessible for repairs," Ishikawa said.
"We may look at putting aluminum wires in because it's cheaper ... but at this point we still don't know how much repairs will cost."
Copper gutters have been stolen from Pearl City schools and businesses. In Kapolei, police said there have been two or three cases involving the theft of spools of half-inch cable wire. Metal recyclers said they are monitoring their customers as best as they can but that there is a lot of traffic coming in and out of the scrapyards.
"Locally, there's a lot of construction activity, and a lot of people are selling scrap from demolished buildings," said Takeo Okuda, of Okuda Metals Inc. "Most of the people are honest, and I know them from years of being in the business.
"But you have to protect your business, and I have a monitoring system here. ... Sometimes I just flat-out tell people no because I don't trust them."
Copper prices have thieves active in many other states as well. There are reports of copper wires stolen from church air-conditioning units in North Carolina and Texas and the stripping of abandoned cell phone towers and construction sites in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Thieves in Melbourne, Australia, recently stole $500,000 in copper rods from a transport company. And Malaysian media reported that copper cables valued at more than $327,000 were stolen from a shopping center that was under construction.