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Copper theft law possibly working

Legislation to curb copper theft may be working, a telecommunications company official and the State Police told West Virginia lawmakers Monday.

The law, which took effect in mid-June, made it illegal for scrap yards and recycling centers to buy certain kinds of scrap metal without proof of lawful possession. The bill was a response to alarm by utility companies over a rash of copper theft

Frontier Communications has seen the number of thefts drop from 110 in the third quarter of 2011 to just 30 in the third quarter of this year, company spokesman Bryan Stover said.

But the company isn't sure if the law alone is working.

"It will take longer to see if that's going to be a consistent pattern," he said in an interview.

Copper prices are also down from last year, said Roland Fisher, head of the West Virginia Recyclers Association.

But State Police Capt. Bill Scott told members of a legislative committee looking at the issue he thinks the law helped.

All told, there was cautious optimism the law was working but worry that rogue outfits and bands of "gypsy" copper thieves will still plague the state unabated. Copper can be found in telephone and electrical wires, railroad equipment and from catalytic converters in automobiles.

Ruth Lemmon, head of the West Virginia Auto and Truck Dealers Association, said "gypsies" continue to steal catalytic converters from vehicles.

"They go any place there is a congregation of vehicles," Lemmon said.

These thieves may be unaffected by the law because they are selling either to fly-by-night operations who don't follow the law or to out-of-state buyers.

Lawmakers wondered what they could do about the roaming thieves.

Chris Bowen, a railroad detective with CSX, said metal thieves are like fleas - "you can't get rid of them."

Bowen told the committee some less reputable metal dealers were buying illegally obtained metal.

"It's not your established scrap yards that are buying this stuff," he said. "It's your mom-and-pop backyard operations."

Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, wondered if Fisher's group was doing enough to police its own members.

Copper theft rose in 2006 when the price of scrap began to rise. It has remained a problem for utility companies, with the severity fluctuating with prices.

Contact writer Ry Rivard at or 304-348-1796. Follow him at



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