Alex Giuliani owns a complex of old Duluth industrial buildings he plans to redevelop soon. But he's says metal thieves are stripping the place clean. He's even seen them at work, in the dark, cutting up the building's old electrical wiring.
"Even though we're there, and we're physically in the buildings when these people are in there, they're taking it; I mean we can actually smell the smoke from their cigarettes," says Giuliani. "They're high tech. They have night vision goggles, and when we come in they're able to scamper out quickly, so we're not able to catch them."
Giuliani says they're targeting his buildings for the thick copper wiring that once served the old iron foundry. It just the kind of wire that can bring thieves a lot of money. If he were to replace the wiring, Giuliani says it would cost almost $200,000.
"The worst part about it is that our electrical systems have now been non-operable due to the fact that they have blown our transformers," says Guiliani.
Giuliani's had to move his offices out of the now powerless complex.
Copper thieves in particular are getting dangerously brazen. In Gnesen Township, just outside Duluth, they cut and stole copper propane piping from the local community center -- with the natural gas still on. Officials were able to stop the leak before there was an explosion or fire.
Often the thieves target new construction. St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman says someone hit the new county Public Safety Building in Duluth. They took a braided copper ground wire that had just been buried around the new building; they dug it right back up.
The thieves are high tech. They have night vision goggles, and when we come in they're able to scamper out quickly, so we're not able to catch them.Alex Guiliani
Litman says it's all driven by the price for scrap metals, particularly for copper.
"The price per pound for salvaged copper, clean salvaged copper, is actually quite high right now, around $3 a pound," says Litman. "So the numbers of copper thefts that are occurring, not just here in St. Louis County, but everywhere, are on the rise."
Litman says there's no particular clear profile for who's stealing copper. But Paul Gardner says he has some idea. Gardner is the outgoing President of the Recycling Association of Minnesota.
"We're just finding people, particularly who are feeding methamphetamine habits, ripping off copper, and also aluminum wire, all over the country. And they're taking it to scrap metal yards to redeem it for cash," says Gardner.
Gardner says the recycling industry is responding through a national organization, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc.
He says their Web site can show recyclers where the latest thefts have been reported, so they know what to watch for. The organization also promotes measures like ID checks and recording transactions on video.
This month, Gardner is being sworn into the Minnesota House as a new representative from Shoreview. He says he'll push for legislation to make some of the recycling industry's recommendations law, to better track just who's selling what.
"It would require a scrap metal recycler in Minnesota to record identification in some fashion. That could be a license number, a driver's license -- preferably a picture ID, so that you'd be able to trace the material," Gardner says.
St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman says state associations of both county sheriffs and police chiefs will be pushing this year for both mandatory identification and record-keeping from the state's recyclers.
Meanwhile, metals prices that peaked in October have come down a bit, but there's been little letup in reports of metal thefts.