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Regulating copper is a complicated business

WHERE DOES THE STOLEN WIRE GO? After the April 22 column included metal thieves leaving street lights dark and awaiting repair, several readers have asked for a little more light on the issue.

TW emails, “What I haven’t seen mentioned in the various discussions of copper wire thefts is who’s making it profitable for the thieves? Who’s buying the stolen copper? Are the metal recycling companies part of the cycle? I’d like to see the ‘rest of the story.’ ”

And Don Hornbrook adds, “I may be missing something or not reading the articles on copper wire thefts thoroughly, but has anyone thought of drying up or regulating the market for copper wire sales?”

In order: The price of copper and metal; someone who’s unscrupulous, unknowing or out of state; no telling but they are regulated; and yes.

WHO MAKES IT PROFITABLE? At this writing, copper was going for more than $3.50 a pound. Hook your bumper up to the wire in a light pole and pull out yards of copper, as a repair crew explained to one reader, and we’re talking some real cash. Take the whole pole, as happened with the lights on the bike bridge next to Interstate 40 over the river, and add close to $2 a pound for steel. To thieves, that likely outweighs the penalties under N.M. law they might face. More on that in a minute.

WHO BUYS IT? In 2012, the New Mexico Legislature passed, and then-Gov. Susana Martinez signed, laws that require secondhand metal dealers to register with the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department, allow them to photograph the seller and the materials, and create and fund a searchable database for dealers to upload information daily to law enforcement.

At the time, the head of the New Mexico Metal Recyclers Association said, “We’re really pleased with it. I think it will work really well for victims, it’ll work well for Regulation and Licensing; it’ll work well for law enforcement. If it is enforced, it’ll cut down on theft.”

And the thefts continued.

IS IT REGULATED? In 2014, during a rash of copper utility wire thefts, recyclers explained that the state requires those wanting to sell scrap metals to show identification and thieves were either chopping it up to mask what it was/where it came from or taking it out of state. (I know that I have to show ID, and they write down my vehicle make, model and license plate number, every time I take aluminum cans to the recycling center.)

WHAT ARE THE PENALTIES? That same year, the Legislature finally took a crack at toughening the penalties for stealing metal. The final, amended-down version left the first and second offense a misdemeanor and capped the possible fine at $1,000. Third and subsequent convictions became fourth-degree felonies with fines capped at $5,000. And penalties were still tied to the cost of the material stolen, not the damage caused, and here’s an example of what that means: Around $200 to $500 of copper wire was stolen from a Santa Fe church around Christmas 2013. That theft caused more than $80,000 in damage when the boiler cracked.

I wrote last year that the city of Albuquerque’s Department of Municipal Development reported 71 incidents of copper theft from Dec. 1, 2017, to Nov. 30, 2018. Those thefts left taxpayers picking up $390,000 in repair bills. And in 2016 I reported that Bernalillo County and Public Service Company of New Mexico in conjunction with the city were switching to aluminum wiring as they repair and replace stolen copper, adding stickers to poles and boxes to advertise to would-be thieves what’s inside.

But clearly there’s still enough copper out there to tempt too many.

And the thefts continue.

IS THAT SUNPORT RETAINING WALL SAFE? Susan Hunter emails she “noticed that the precast MSE (mechanically stabilized embankment) retaining wall on the southeast side of the Sunport Boulevard bridge over I-25 has some severe damage that is located quite close to the eastern bridge abutment. One of the MSE panels is caved in, and it looks as if there is some damage to the panels that surround it. Are there any plans to inspect the bridge for structural damage? As the person who drew the original plans for that bridge, I tend to keep an eye on it, and it is disturbing to see neglect or damage to something that I helped create.”

The New Mexico Department of Transportation is on it, thanks to Susan’s sharp eye.

Kimberly Gallegos of NMDOT’s District 3 Office says, “Maintenance is aware of this issue. We have had the bridge inspected, and it is structurally sound. As for scheduled work, it’s on the horizon but not scheduled just yet. Once funding becomes available, we will get this scheduled and completed. As always thanks for the heads up!”

Editorial page editor D’Val Westphal tackles commuter issues for the Metro area on Mondays. Reach her at 823-3858;; or 7777 Jefferson NE, Albuquerque, N.M., 87109.