For a non-profit school that caters to hearing impaired children, losing $100,000 could close doors.
In January of 2008, Magnolia Speech School in Jackson held a benefit to raise $100,000 after thieves pulled apart the school’s air conditioning units looking for copper wiring.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann got steamed when he heard the news because he has family members who had gone through some of the programs at the school.
“I knew they were doing good work out there,” Hosemann said. “That’s why it made me so angry that these cretins came out there and stole their air conditioning units, causing a lot of damage for a few thousand dollars in copper.”
Hosemann found that one problem was that scrap metal dealers were often unknowingly taking in stolen copper and aluminum by offering cash to the people that brought it in.
Of the more than 25,000 claims for the theft of scrap metal between 2009-2011, 96 percent concerned copper theft, according to The National Insurance Crime Bureau. The bureau points to the variable value of copper to explain the growth in claims.
On farms in the Mississippi Delta, the problem was even more pronounced. Tractors, ATVs, trailers — they were all being sneaked off farms and chopped up for their materials or in some cases sold whole.
Captain Bernadette Logan of the Tunica County Sheriff’s Office said that in the Delta, these thefts are a prevalent occurrence. On any given month, she can expect as many as nine to ten calls about stolen chemicals, tractors, or other equipment from a farm.
“Sometimes you will get someone who goes out and steals two trailers from a farm,” Logan said, “and then they come back a week later and hit the same farm again.”
“The real issue is that when they steal it, they don’t do it nice and clean,” said Marvin Cochran, a farmer in Hollandale. “In the past we’ve had some copper wires stolen from our irrigation wells.”
Irrigation wells pump water out of aquifers to water fields.
“It’s not much in the way of money for copper thieves,” Cochran said. “However, it was a great expense to us.”
Cochran said that depending on the damage done to the well as the thief extracts the wire, costs can range from $300 to $400 per well.
“People ought to realize how vulnerable we are,” Cochran said. “We’ve got tractors waiting on the road at night. They are really expensive. I’ve had fuel pumped out of tanks overnight. You know a tractor holds 150 gallons of fuel if the tank is full. If fuel is two dollars a gallon, that’s a $300 lick that night.”
“I’ve had that happen two or three times,” he said. “Other farmers have had trouble with vandalism to their equipment.”
With stories like Cochran’s rolling in, Hosemann got to work with then-Sen. and current Gulfport mayor Billy Hewes and got a bill passed in 2008’s special session.
SB 2006 required scrap metal dealers to keep the name, address and age of every person they buy metal from. In addition, they are required to record a description and weight of the material they bought and some information about the vehicle the seller used to deliver the material.
Would-be scrap metal dealers were required to register with the Secretary of State’s office. The Secretary of State was vested with enforcement.
The legislation mandated that only licensed copper dealers could sell to recyclers. And those recyclers are no longer able to pay cash to dealers at the point of sell. Under these requirements, many recyclers switched to sending checks in the mail days after the sale.
But Hosemann and his staff found that folks who would steal in one Delta county might try to fence the stolen goods in another state. There was no system to connect the dots when valuable scrap metals would cross county or state lines for sale.
This led Hosemann to create the Delta Ag Theft Task Force in December 2015. The task force is a collaboration between law enforcement and metal recyclers in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee (as of 2016) that uses a common database to keep track of every piece of scrap metal sold.
With this system, when a certain amount of copper wiring goes missing, this database becomes a convenient way for law enforcement to report it. Similarly, it gives a common platform for recyclers to report the scrap they receive.
“With this task force in effect, the people of Mississippi are showing the kind of forward thinking and leadership to put an end to copper theft,” Hosemann said.
“The copper theft that was happening several years ago seems to have slowed down thanks to some great laws that were passed in the State of Mississippi,” Cochran said. “In years past, we’ve had a lot of (our) copper lines snipped off or ripped out of the ground. That’s three to four hundred dollars in order to get them fixed.”
Copper theft is a huge issue for isolated farms, churches, schools, and businesses. Scrap metal enterprises should cooperate fully with every attempt to make rural areas less vulnerable.
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