Tuesday, July 17, 2007

PASADENA, Md. — Firefighters weren’t sure what was causing the smoke rising from a former discount store in this Baltimore suburb. The place had been abandoned for years, the interior stripped to the walls.

When they got inside July 2, they found only one thing burning: a 41-year-old man who became engulfed in flames and died after cutting through a high-voltage line.

Sean Phelps became another casualty of what authorities say is a deadly national trend: copper-wiring thefts.

High copper prices in recent years have thieves breaking into power plants and abandoned factories to rip out the wiring. Vandals are even stealing from grave sites.

The number of people killed nationally in copper theft attempts has not been counted, but news accounts put the death toll at about two dozen over the past year.

Mr. Phelps, a father of nine and a former long-haul trucker who family members say was trying to scavenge scrap metal to help support his family, was found alone in the empty building, next to a set of bolt cutters, a police scanner and the store’s lone remaining electrical panel. He wrongly assumed the power would be off, authorities say.

When Mr. Phelps cut the wire carrying at least 220 volts, he was hit with a powerful electrical arc, similar to what happens when lightning strikes or a transformer blows.

Most copper thefts are nuisances. A rash of thefts at a Maryland youth baseball park has left Little League night games without lights.

Thieves are turning increasingly to the highest-quality sources of copper — power substations, utility poles and electrical boxes — and turning over the easy-to-recycle wiring to scrap dealers.

Copper prices have increased almost fourfold in the past decade, led by rising demand from Asia. Copper now trades on financial markets for $3.65 a pound. The metal is hard to trace and retains its value well when recycled, so thieves are even targeting copper alloys such as brass.

Pipes and air conditioners have been stripped from homes and churches. California farmers have had irrigation machinery plucked. Thieves last year stole $10,000 worth of brass toilet flush valves from parks around Honolulu.

Police in Maryland, Ohio and Wisconsin say copper urns or brass plates have vanished from cemeteries.

“They don’t realize how much danger they’re putting themselves in for $3 a pound,” said Betty Kennedy, a spokeswoman for Atlantic City Electric in New Jersey.

In Ohio, a man was recently electrocuted when he tried to take down a power line to sell the copper. Sheriff’s deputies found the man tangled in the line, and utility workers had to remove the body.

Twenty states have passed laws this year to curb the problem. Much of the attention has gone to metal recyclers, who in many places could buy scrap without asking about its source.

After several people were electrocuted in Arkansas, legislators passed a law this year requiring people selling scrap metal to supply photo IDs and addresses. That law takes effect at the end of the month.

“We’ve had too many in our state killed,” said state Rep. Bruce D. Maloch, a Democrat who sponsored the bill.

Though some scrap-metal recyclers oppose such laws, many say they already ask for identification.

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