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Scrap metal thieves plague California farmers

Sunday, October 14, 2012 | 1:01 PM    

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CALIFORNIA, USA  (AP) -- When metal thieves tore up yet another expensive water pump for the few dollars' worth of copper wire that energise it, the frustrated farmer considered taping $100 bills to the rebuilt system hoping crooks would just grab the easy money next time.

After a little more thought he warned his neighbours -  and set a trap.

Within two months the screech of bare rims on asphalt alerted everyone within earshot that the six-inch tire spikes farmer Cannon Michael buried near his besieged pumps had thwarted the thieves' getaway.

"I have to protect my property," said Michael, whose thoughtful demeanour is not one of a vigilante. "Law enforcement isn't helping, but you can't expect them to be out in the middle of nowhere. At some point you have to make the thieves not want to come out here."

California farmers are facing a calamity. Petty metal thefts, which law enforcement officials believe are driven by Central California's high rate of methamphetamine addiction, are creating damages 10 times higher than the value of the metal crooks rip out to recycle.

In the US's number one agriculture county, thieves are on track this year to steal more than $1 million worth of metal they'll sell for pennies on the dollar. The theft of pump wiring, irrigation pipes, equipment bearings and even tractor weights account for 85 per cent of Fresno County's rural crime, the district attorney said.

"That's just in metal loss," said Sgt Mike Chapman of the Fresno County Sheriff's Office Agriculture Task Force. "That's not what it's going to cost to replace or repair the equipment, which can be 10 times more."

That's what makes metal thefts worse for farmers than thefts of crops.

The Urban Institute, a Washington DC research organisation, estimated after studying crime in California's Central Valley that agriculture theft of all types cost farmers nationwide US$5 billion in 2007, most passed along to consumers as higher prices.

The state attorney general reported in 2006 that of 119,297 thefts in this 10-county agricultural region, just 7,854 arrests were made.

The high price for recycled metals is driven by demand from China, where not enough is mined to keep up with the construction boom there. Untraceable metals bought by recycling businesses make their way to ports at Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland for shipment overseas.

Law enforcement officials lament the lack of deterrents, since jails are full, and the court system is concentrating on violent offenders.

In California, the chairman of the state Senate agriculture committee Senator Anthony Canella is now considering legislation that would mandate that recyclers are paid by cheque instead of cash to make them easier to track. Years of prison crowding, he said, have left lawmakers reluctant to increase penalties for metal thefts, which can be prosecuted as felonies or misdemeanors, depending on the value of the metal stolen - not the damage caused.

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