By Kevin Duschere

The Minnesota senator and local officials discussed the problem at a St. Paul ice rink hit by copper thieves in November. 

With a popular St. Paul ice rink recently stripped of its copper as her backdrop, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Wednesday that metal theft has become a national problem that needs a federal solution.

Klobuchar, a Democrat, said she and other senators are sponsoring bipartisan-backed legislation to make stealing metal from critical infrastructure a federal crime, and requiring stricter documentation and records of recyclers who buy metal and the people who sell to them.

"Minnesota has one of the toughest laws in the country, but it's not enough," Klobuchar said, because metal thieves can evade local or state laws by selling their stolen goods across state lines.

Klobuchar spoke at the Phalen Recreation Center outdoor rink along with Mayor Chris Coleman, Police Chief Thomas Smith, Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom and Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson. In November, thieves stole 64 copper pipes that were used to move coolant around the rink to keep it refrigerated.

Coleman said the theft threatened to limit winter activities for kids.

"We don't want those opportunities jeopardized in St. Paul because of lax laws across the country," he said.

The estimated cost to replace the copper was $20,000, but two Eagan companies, NAC Mechanical and Mulcahy Co. Inc., donated labor and materials to ensure that the rink opened on schedule.

Johnson said the Minneapolis City Council is working on a series of recommendations to step up police patrols of alleys, enforce faster removal of scrap and put geographic restrictions on where metal might be sold.

It's not just a Twin Cities problem, Klobuchar said. She and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., recently talked to business owners in Fargo-Moorhead who said their shops had been broken into for copper.

Thieves sell the metal for scrap value, often for far less than what it costs to replace it.

The Eagan companies replaced the copper at the Phalen rink with a plastic-based composite material that can withstand harsh winters but has little value in the scrap market.

Klobuchar said the bill is supported by Hoeven and South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, both Republicans, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. She said she believes it will get through the Judiciary Committee this year.