Bill designed to curb copper theft

Published 6:25 pm Wednesday, April 16, 2008

When tornadoes pounded central Mississippi this month, at least one storm siren failed because thieves stripped copper from its fuses and stole wiring.

In Gulf Coast cemeteries, bronze vases are disappearing from grave sites and police believe they’re being sold for scrap.

At a school that serves deaf and speech-impaired children, air conditioning and heating units were gutted for copper parts just before Christmas.

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Mississippi lawmakers have responded to a rash of thefts by sending Gov. Haley Barbour a bill that would put new regulations on dealers that buy copper, aluminum and other scrap metal.

“These people that are law abiding should not have a problem with this,” said Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford.

The House and Senate approved the final version of the bill Tuesday. Some lawmakers — including Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus — argued the new regulations would be a burden for private businesses and would be impossible to enforce.

“We don’t need to be doing anything to impede people making a living … honest people,” Brown said.

Barbour spokesman Pete Smith said the Republican governor will have to study the final version of the bill before deciding whether to sign it into law.

Several other states, including neighboring Tennessee, are enacting laws to try to curb metal theft as the price of copper rises.

In Mississippi, Hinds County emergency management director Larry Fisher said thieves probably only got $2.50 to $3 worth of copper from the fuses on a storm siren off Watkins Drive in north Jackson. Fisher said the missing metal was discovered only after the siren failed when tornadoes ripped through the area April 4 and toppled massive trees nearby.

“When you talk about somebody’s life and wanting just enough copper to sell — that’s the crazy part about it right now. Copper is very lucrative,” Fisher said.

The bill was supported by homebuilders and utility companies and was opposed by a small-business lobbying group.

It would require businesses that buy copper, aluminum or other metal to record the name, age and address of the seller and to take a fingerprint from that person.

It also says dealers would have to mark and hold onto the metal for at least five days, in case someone comes looking for stolen goods.

Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville, said the theft from the emergency siren in Jackson was especially galling because it put thousands of people at risk.

“Thank God nobody died because of that act of thievery,” Bailey said. “But just think if the same people are out there now attacking and taking these metals from emergency equipment.”

Last week in Pascagoula, police said they were investigating the theft of more than 200 bronze vases from Jackson County Memorial Park. Officers said they had gotten information about two men trying to sell the vases at a local recycling center.

In mid-December, thieves caused about $100,000 in damage when they stripped copper out of air conditioning and heating units at the Magnolia Speech School in Jackson. Charities quickly helped raise money to help the school recover some of its losses.

The bills is House Bill 1136.