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KAI RYSSDAL: We've been talking a lot about rising commodity prices -- food mostly. But metals have been having a boom, too. Copper is one of them. And it's not just prices that're hot. Increasingly the copper itself is, too. Thieves are boosting anything they can sell to scrap yards. Stealing copper tubing from construction sites, that kind of thing. They're also tearing apart infrastructure, which is leaving cities and states with big repair bills when their budgets are already bleak.
Marketplace's Jeff Tyler reports.
JEFF TYLER: In an industrial section of Los Angeles, Ben Lozano repairs street lights for the city.
Ben Lozano: All the wire on this particular street is gone.
Thieves yank out copper wire through utility boxes in the sidewalk. The wiring from each light is worth about 20 bucks at a scrap yard. To protect the wire, Lozano is installing new locking lids.
Lozano: We'll probably be trying to replace and secure the wire that's stolen right now every day for the next, I'd say, year.
At Los Angeles City Hall, Councilman Tom LaBonge reviews the damage done since last July.
Tom LaBonge: Over 1,600 lights are out. It will cost over a million and a quarter to fix these and repair these systems.
Nationwide, the tab runs into the hundreds of millions. In some states, like Hawaii, they've cooled to copper and begun using aluminum wire. It's cheaper and less attractive to thieves. The downside is, the street lights don't burn as bright.
Scott Ishikawa is spokesman for the Hawaii Department of Transportation.
Scott Ishikawa: When we talk to the area residents who are affected by these copper thefts, they basically said, "Yeah, that's fine." You know, they'd rather have some lights than no lights at all.
Darkness isn't the most serious public safety issue. When copper thieves cut power lines, they put themselves and utility workers at risk of electrocution. They also steal telephone lines, endangering anyone who needs to dial 911.
Daryl Miller handles asset protection for AT&T.
Daryl Miller: It's almost at epidemic levels.
Last year, copper thefts cost the company over $6 million, and Miller says it's getting worse. So AT&T has invested in new security measures.
MILLER: We've spent money in areas where we had not before, relative to this issue. Because one of the great challenges is our cable is everywhere. Our aerial cable spans across this country.
Helping companies like AT&T protect their assets is the silver lining to the copper crime wave.
KEITH Jentoft: The Department of Energy calls it a billion-dollar problem and growing. And I see that as a billion-dollar opportunity.
That's Keith Jentoft with RSI Video Technologies. It manufactures wireless video cameras.
Preventing metals theft is a growing part of Jentoft's business. He says it could soon account for half his sales. Business is also booming for the $71 billion scrap recycling industry.
States are passing new laws to keep hot copper out of scrap yards like this. Requiring sellers show identification. Making buyers pay by check instead of cash. And photographing merchandise so it can be identified later.
This car being crushed has a vehicle ID. But copper wiring rarely has distinguishing marks.
Some states now requires dealers to sit on inventory for days. Chuck Carr, with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade group, says the law could cost dealers money.
CHUCK CARR: Spot prices can change hourly, and certainly daily throughout the world. It is in the best interests of the scrap industry to move the material, and keep it moving in the economic stream, as quickly as possible.
Carr says the industry has a vested interest in stopping trade in stolen metals, since scrap dealers themselves are often victims of copper theft.
Of course, it's easier to rip off a junk yard when the street lights are out.
In Los Angeles, I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.