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How hot are metals? Thieves are stealing lamp posts

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Washington — It's the caper that has baffled Baltimore. Someone has stolen 130 hulking aluminum light poles in broad daylight — each weighing about 115 kilograms, measuring nine metres tall and stuffed with live electrical wires.

The real mystery isn't who did it. It's why it took so long for one of the fastest-growing crime schemes on the planet to reach Baltimore.

Thanks in large part to China's voracious appetite for resources, the soaring prices of nearly all base metals — aluminum, copper and even steel — have unleashed what can only be described as a scrap metal theft pandemic.

That's why Belgium's main railway station recently lost 770 of its 800 luggage carts and police in the Montreal suburb of Pointe Claire are still hunting for the thieves who made off with 30 manhole covers last spring.

Prices for aluminum and copper have more than doubled in the past couple of years, and are now setting near-daily record highs. Prices in the $85-billion (U.S.) global scrap metal trade are up even more, tripling since 2003.

And the scrap metal crime spree has tracked that upward trajectory every step of the way.

Lamp posts and manhole covers aren't even the most unusual items to go missing — 400 parking meters have been yanked from roadsides in Pittsburgh. Thieves are making off with just about everything they can lay their hands on — copper wiring from homes, aluminum siding, phone booths, fire extinguishers, traffic lights, street signs, ladders and even the kitchen sink.

“Baltimore has a lot of crime problems, but this is the strangest one of all,” admitted Chip Franklin, a radio talk show host at WBAL in that city. “Baltimore is a great city and we have great criminals too.”

That the crime wave would hit Baltimore isn't all that surprising. The city has one of the largest ports on the U.S. East Coast, and much of the stolen scrap ends up in foreign countries — most notably China.

China's booming economy has triggered extraordinary demand for all types of raw materials, particularly those used to build infrastructure. China is now among the world's largest consumers of copper, steel and aluminum. This year, the country is expected to buy roughly a third of the world's steel and account for 80 per cent of the growth in demand.

Far removed from China's mills, though, nothing it seems is sacred — literally.

In October, two men ripped the copper off one of the majestic domes atop Cleveland's St. Theodosius Orthodox cathedral. “Who could steal from God?” church caretaker Ted Lentz wondered to the city's The Plain Dealer newspaper.

In Argentina, soon after someone brazenly pried bronze plaques from the famed Obelisco monument on one of Buenos Aires busiest boulevards, the government launched a crackdown on scrap metal theft. In July, the country imposed a temporary ban on exports of all scrap copper and aluminum. The government has also created a national registry for scrap metal dealers and exporters as well as a “theft-free” certification program.

Theft of copper wires from electrical utilities and telephone companies has become so rampant in Argentina that it has badly affected service to millions of customers. Cable theft is running at a rate of 500 kilometres a month, up from 200 kilometres a month a year ago.

But the impact of all this theft isn't just economic. It has also become downright dangerous. At least eight people in China reportedly have died in the past couple of years after falling into sewers after manhole covers were removed. It's a wonder there haven't been more deaths. Last year, 24,000 manhole covers were pilfered in Beijing alone.

In August, Chinese authorities blamed the theft of signalling cables for a collision of two Dalian-bound trains — a crash that killed five people and injured 30.

In the summer in Columbus, Ohio, a vacant townhouse exploded after a thief cut the natural gas line while stealing copper pipes.

Mr. Franklin, the radio talk show host, is glum about what the crime says about Baltimore, where police suspect crack addicts are stealing the poles to feed their habit.

“Think how bad we're losing the war on drugs if crack addicts are cutting down light poles to get a fix.”

© The Globe and Mail

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