Copper Theft: A Lucrative Criminal Activity That Threatens Essential Services
SAN JUAN – Copper thieves are threatening Puerto Rico’s infrastructure by targeting electrical substations, telephone land lines, construction sites, and vacant homes for profits, a situation that disrupts the flow of electricity and other essential services, according to a recent report from the House Socioeconomic Development and Planning Committee.
The demand for copper from countries like China and the surge in its price serves as an incentive for copper thieves to steal and sell the metal to recyclers across the island for profit, the report said.
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) said companies that produce cooper have been unable to increase supply to meet the demand for copper worldwide. As a result, the value of copper has gone up. The value of a pound of copper has ranged from $1.50 ten years ago to around $2.80 in 2015. From 2010 to 2012 its value increased to $4.50 a pound.
The consequence has been a lucrative market for the purchase of used or recycled cooper, according to the report.
PREPA loses about $1 million a year just in replacing metals stolen from its facilities and in repairing damaged equipment. During fiscal year 2013-2014, PREPA spent more than $350,000 when thieves stole aluminum from power transmission facilities in Juana Diaz, a crime that jeopardized the stability of the power system.
The Puerto Rico Telephone Company, Inc. (CLARO) said the theft of copper and other metal affects all Puerto Ricans because it can leave them without essential telecommunication services.
CLARO lost about $10 million in the theft of cooper and other metals just in 2010. The theft of copper caused $3 million in losses in 2011, $4.3 million in losses in 2012 and $4.69 million in 2013. In 2014, CLARO lost $6.87 million, but had no final numbers for 2015, according to the report.
The telecommunications firm is working with the Interagency Committee on Copper Theft to help deal with the problem.
The Justice Department said that in 2009 it began the task of training prosecutors on a 2007 law that toughen criminal penalties on copper theft. However, the agency did not know how many persons have been convicted of stealing cooper, according to the report.
The House panel recommended toughening the laws that regulate the copper recycling industry and the penalties for stealing copper and other metals. It also said PREPA should set up video surveillance cameras on electrical power stations that are prone to cooper theft and requiring that merchants who buy copper and other recycled metals keep a log with the names and addresses of the people who sell them the material.