Thieves strip copper from Mililani High
>>Metal recyclers urge victims to call with descriptions of their missing materials.
>> Nine stolen downspouts will cost thousands to replace
Mililani High School has become the latest in a string of schools victimized by copper thieves inspired by record high prices for what is fast becoming a precious metal.
Thieves made off with six copper downspouts that channel rainwater from the school's gymnasium roof last weekend, and school officials arrived yesterday morning to find that three more of the 6-foot-long segments had been torn from the building.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mililani High School Vice Principal Jim Petersen stands by what remains of one of nine copper downpour spouts stolen from the gym over the past week.
"I'm really angry because I have a child that goes to this school, too," said Vice Principal Jim Petersen. "When you steal from the school, it's like stealing from children, and it really (ticks) me off."
Businesses, schools and homeowners in the state have reported a rash of copper thefts involving rain gutters, pipes and wires this year as copper prices have soared.
From less than a dollar per pound last year, its value has climbed well over three dollars a pound, due to a worldwide shortage often blamed on China's huge appetite for the metals needed by its bustling economy.
Local thieves are cashing in, and finding public schools to be easy targets.
Eleven different campuses in the Leeward and Central districts have reported thefts this summer, said Francis Cheung of the Department of Education's facilities maintenance branch.
"Normally we don't see too much of this, but this summer schools have really been getting hit," he said.
Public schools are easy victims, since grounds are so easy to enter and tight school budgets rule out any sort of 24-hour security systems, said Kaylene Yee, principal of Waimalu Elementary.
In July, thieves took the last of the school's copper downspouts, which had begun disappearing 18 months ago.
"They got 'em all. They're all gone. It's so unfair," Yee said.
When the waves of thefts began, thieves went so far as to dig up newly laid copper pipes, she said.
The DOE is replacing stolen copper downspouts with less-valuable aluminum or polyvinyl chloride pipe, Cheung said, and paints any newly installed copper now to deter miscreants.
Metals recyclers who buy scrap metal have sought to do their part by recording the identification of people who bring in copper and other metals, and recording vehicle license plates for "suspicious-looking" sellers, said Hawaii Metal Recycling Co. business manager Karen Shinmoto.
But with many legitimate sellers also cashing in -- such as those doing home renovations and looking to dispose of old copper -- there is little else the company can do, she said.
"We do get a lot of suspicious-looking people," she said. "But there's no way we can tell things are stolen."
Theft victims should immediately notify metals firms with detailed descriptions of what was stolen, so they can be on the lookout for them, she said.
"Unfortunately, that doesn't happen often enough," she said.
Mililani High's Petersen estimates the combined replacement cost of his school's downspouts to run to a few thousand dollars because the 18-inch-wide, 15-pound segments have to be specially fabricated, but the school will likely opt for PVC.
To deter future thefts, the school will lock up that segment of the campus, which contains tennis courts open to the public, after hours.
"Crime like this affect not only the school but the whole community," he said.
Roads to stay dark until alternative found to copper wire
Motorists from Central and Leeward Oahu will have to endure blacked-out stretches of road a bit longer while the state determines how to repair street lights snuffed out by copper thieves.
The state Department of Transportation is trying to figure out how to fix the lights in a way that will not invite further thefts, department spokesman Scott Ishikawa said.
"It doesn't make any sense to repair them just so the copper can be stolen again next week," he said.
In April, thieves made off with about one mile of copper wiring near the H-1/ H-2 merge. That put about 75 lights out of commission, Ishikawa said.
Additional thefts also have blacked out stretches of H-1 between Kunia and Makakilo, he said.
Repairs to similar damage caused by copper thieves last year cost the state $50,000, and the new damage will cost "at least the amount," Ishikawa said.
The department is offering no repair timetable or description of possible methods, partly to keep thieves guessing.
But it also faces the problem of finding a balance between making the lines secure while also complying with codes requiring that lines are easily accessible for routine repairs.
"It's a real shame that somebody is putting the safety of many other people in jeopardy just to make a few bucks," Ishikawa said.