Copper theft problem in Socorro County

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The recent theft of 400 pounds of copper tubing from Jaramillo's Plumbing in Socorro is the latest in a rash of copper thefts in the area. New state statutes attempting to regulate scrap metal dealers don't appear to have made much of a dent in the illicit used metal trade.

Secondhand metal recyclers are now required to register their businesses and each transaction with the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department, said NMRLD director of communications S.U. Mahesh. Before July 2011, registering with the state was purely voluntary.

Now recyclers who don't follow these new rules face a maximum $1,000 fine per offense and revocation of their business license — and additional criminal charges if they are found to be trading in stolen metal.

But the state doesn't send inspectors out in the field to check up on dealers, so that responsibility falls upon local law enforcement, Mahesh said.

"Law enforcement has access to the databases, so they know who hasn't registered," he said.

When the state is notified that a dealer isn't registered, a letter is sent out to the business. If the dealer still fails to register, administrative action is taken and a fine levied, he said.

Despite these measures, copper theft is still a big problem in Socorro County.

"It's a huge issue," said Socorro Electric Cooperative general manager Joseph Herrera. "Almost every pole has copper on it."

"We're always replacing copper pole grounds," he said. "As recently as last week the ground leads were stolen from the concrete poles on the Spring Street circuit that goes to Highway 60."

Herrera said thieves might "gallop" the copper strips to get them loose from the poles, not realizing the risk.

"It's dangerous," he said. "When they pull it off, they grab it. It goes all the way up to the neutral line. If they shake it might make contact with energized lines."

So far, no one in New Mexico has been electrocuted while stealing copper, but Herrera said fatalities have happened elsewhere.

The Spring Street incident is the latest in a series of copper thefts plaguing the co-op.

In mid-October, thieves hit the Burris substation in southern Valencia County, ripping out a network of underground copper ground wires grounding the equipment.

This summer, the Bernardo substation was hit three times within a two-month span.

Herrera said the real cost to the co-op is the man hours needed to replace the ground wires, which are required for safe operation of the substations and poles.

They take $300 or $400 worth of copper, but it takes a couple of days to replace it.

Lately, Herrera said the co-op has been replacing pure copper wire with less expensive "copper clad" and "copper weld" wire, trade names for wire made with less expensive metal. Because the copper substitute looks like copper, the manufacturer painted it black, but thieves are still stealing the cheaper metal.

"As a deterrent, we're not putting copper back in," he said. "About January 2012 we started replacing it with copper weld. It gives you the same characteristics as copper but it's a lot cheaper, pennies on a dollar. It looks like copper, so the manufacturer has gone to painting it black."

Herrera said the fact that the Bernardo substation was hit two times after the original copper wire had been replaced with the cheap copper meld shows that the thefts are random acts committed by different individuals each time.

"To me, it shows it's not just one group of people," he said. "I'm sure when they take the new copper weld to the recyclers, they will find out it has no value."

The co-op has installed surveillance and even put up signs at the substations advising would-be thieves that the copper wire isn't there anymore.

So far, no suspects have been found for any of the copper thefts.

The problem is that it's difficult to identify stolen copper.

"In the city of Socorro, when the police have found copper, they call it in," he said. "It's very difficult to identify copper unless your name's on it. You can't put a label on every piece of copper. We've never found out who has been stealing the copper. Who is it? We would like to know."

Herrera thinks the solution lies with the metal recycling trade.

"The biggest problem is the metal salvagers," he said. "They could get rid of that market."

"I'm not saying locally," he said. "I don't know where they are selling it. There are certainly unscrupulous scrappers in the state. They're a well-organized group of people who fought the legislative processes in the past. They have fought regulation."

Local metal recycler Robert Tafoya of T and T Tire said he follows the law when it comes to buying scrap metal, so he doubts thieves sell him stolen material.

His employee, Ina Crawford, makes sure everyone who sells them metal shows her a driver's license and the vehicle's license plate. She enters the name, address and license number into the state database. The seller then has to sign a form certifying the load is legitimate.

Tafoya said his staff doesn't check each load that comes in unless someone locally tells him to look out for something. The state also sends registered dealers alerts about stolen material.

"If someone lets us know, then we can look out for it," he said. "We'll post of photo of it."

He said Ross Electric called him a few months ago to report that copper wire had been stolen.

Anton Salome, who helps his father, George, run the family's recycling business on Church Street, said he also follows the letter of the law when it comes to buying scrap, but even so, criminals will always be able to sell illicit metal.

Texas doesn't regulate scrap metal dealers, so that's where he thinks some criminals take their loads.

"You can go to Texas and sell scrap metal with no regulation," he said.

He thinks the high price of metal encourages petty theft.

"The market is such that it promotes that behavior," he said. "Overall, it's been at a higher price level, although it depends upon the market."

He said copper tubing goes for between $2.00 to $2.50 per pound, even as much as $2.55 a pound for large lots of 200 pounds or more.

Salome said he didn't get any alert about the Jaramillo theft, but often his employees are too busy to check the computer.

"We don't have time to check for alerts," he said. "We're too busy to be doing that. We follow the statues. You have the rules you need to follow."

Socorro County Sheriff Phillip Montoya said his department has been working with other New Mexico law enforcement agencies to share information about metal thefts.

"A state-wide task force has been formed," he said.

He said one of his officers belongs to the task force. Socorro sheriff's deputies have checked up on local recyclers periodically.

"It's random thefts for the most part," he said. "The recyclers are making the big profits. Most recyclers now are legitimate. Before — anyone could set up shop and buy scrap."

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