By: Sarah Gorvin and Danielle Killey, The Republican Eagle

In late October, thieves broke into a gravel pit operated by Cemstone in Florence Township and cut 90 feet of wire out of the site’s generator.

“They take our electrical power cords for the copper,” Cemstone Vice President Ken Kuhn said.

It’s not the first time the Northfield-based company has been hit by copper thieves. Kuhn said Cemstone’s gravel pits in both Wisconsin and Minnesota have been hit multiple times. And each time, it costs the company.

“It’s never less than $10,000,” Kuhn said, adding that that figure doesn’t include the two days of lost production that generally accompanies the thefts.

Cemstone is just one victim of a growing metal and copper theft problem in Goodhue County and across Minnesota. Authorities say the number of reported metal thefts has been going up for the past year.

“It’s been on the rise,” Red Wing Police Sgt. Jerry Rosenow said. “We seem to be seeing more cases.”

This year alone, there were 32 copper theft cases handled by the Goodhue County Sheriff’s Office. There were 14 cases in all of 2011. The Red Wing Police Department has tallied 24 metal thefts so far this year, 14 of which have occurred in the last two months alone.

“If it’s made out of copper, they’re willing to steal it,” Rosenow said of thieves.

Thefts in Red Wing range from relatively small pieces of wiring — such as trailer hitch wires — to car parts and plumbing out of houses.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar this week introduced legislation to help with the issue.

“We are seeing, nationally, an increase in metal theft,” Klobuchar said in an interview with the R-E.

That increase coupled with a few high-profile metal thefts spurred the legislation, she said. For example, materials were taken from a radio tower in Rochester, an ice rink in St. Paul and 200 brass stars from veterans’ graves.

There also have been instances where metal piping has been stolen from homes, causing dangerous problems.

The thefts cause millions of dollars of damage and losses throughout the country each year, Klobuchar said.

Rosenow said there are a number of factors that have made copper attractive, including a rise in price, the fact that it is difficult to trace and an abundance of copper and metal.

“Just think of all the things out there made out of metal,” he said.

The problem is that identifying the copper remnants brought to recycling centers as stolen is next to impossible. Thieves typically burn wires immediately to strip off the plastic coating. After that, it’s nearly impossible to tie the thief to the crime, Rosenow said.

“Once it’s … burned off, it’s virtually impossible to track,” he said. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of (what’s recycled) is not identifiable.”

Klobuchar’s bill aims to help at least the tracking issue.

The legislation would establish a “do not buy” provision which bans scrap metal dealers from buying certain items without written documentation that the seller is authorized to sell the metals. Scrap metal dealers also would be required to keep detailed records of the metal purchases for two years and provide them to law enforcement agencies if needed, according to Klobuchar’s office.

The bill also would require purchases of more than $100 to be paid in check.

“It will cut down on people showing up at scrap metal dealers and getting a bunch of cash,” Klobuchar said.

The proposed bill also would make it a federal crime to steal metals from critical infrastructure, such as locks and dams or rail lines.

State laws will continue to govern the specifics of punishment and regulations on scrap metal dealers, though some extras would be added. The act directs the U.S. Sentencing Commission to review penalty guidelines for metal thefts.

The law would put extra regulations on scrap metal dealers, and “we want to be very aware of that,” Klobuchar said. But she doesn’t think they are too detrimental.

“It’s not very onerous to simply pay by check,” she said.

Klobuchar noted the proposed legislation is similar to what Minnesota already requires, but other states have more lax rules.

She compared it to regulations that cropped up with methamphetamine labs were common — placing Sudafed behind pharmacy counters.

“It’s a high likelihood” that the bill could go through, Klobuchar said. The Metal Theft Prevention Act is co-sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, and Chuck Schumer, Democrat from New York.

Kuhn said he hopes Klobuchar’s bill will pass and help curb metal thefts. But for now, he said Cemstone — and other companies like his — are looking for their own ways to deter thieves.

“The industry is certainly working on many different techniques to stop them,” he said. Still, he said given the high price of copper, theft isn’t going to go away quickly.

“It’s an ongoing problem that we’re going to be battling.”

By the numbers: Metal thefts

• 32: Number of copper cases handled by Goodhue County so far this year

• 24: Number of metal thefts in Red Wing since the beginning of 2012

• 14: Number of metal thefts in the last two months in Red Wing; number of metal thefts handled by Goodhue County in 2011

• More than 25,000: Number of insurance claims related to metal theft between 2009 and 2011, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau — an 81 percent increase over claims made between 2006 and 2008.