Commercial construction in Anchorage is expensive, and one man says copper theft is making his price tag climb even higher.

Gary Keyes is the project manager for a new medical office building that is going up in midtown.

He says that last week, thieves cut the locks off a bolted door and stole about a dozen 20-foot copper pipes that had yet to be installed.

This site has been hit by copper thieves a dozen times

Keyes says that, since construction started last August, the unfinished building has been hit at least a dozen times.

In all, he says the thefts have added about $15,000 to the cost of the project. 

Thieves have also stolen copper wire from Chugach Electric Association’s substations, according to the utility’s spokeswoman Julie Hasquet. She says it's certainly a problem and it's dangerous.

"Could somebody get electrocuted if wires aren't grounded? Absolutely," Hasquet says. "So it's a very dangerous situation for everyone involved."

Chugach electric says copper thieves have hit substations

It's a risk that doesn't have a big financial reward for the thieves.

Nate Kruk with Central Recycling Services, a business that buys scrap copper, says he pays an average of about $2 a pound.

If copper thieves are risking their lives and they aren't getting rich, then why do they do it? Anchorage Police Department spokesperson MJ Thim says the answer is simple.

"It's drugs, it's centered around drugs," said Thim. 

Thim describes copper thefts as a problem in Anchorage that ebbs and flows with the price of copper. In addition to thieves stealing copper pipes and wire, Thim says police have had reports of thieves breaking into local businesses and stealing the copper coils from air conditioning systems.

He says copper thieves can be difficult to catch because, unlike automobiles that have identifying numbers, most copper isn’t marked.

"And so what you're left [with] is just the copper itself, the copper wire or the piping. So there's nothing identifiable on that. So it's really left up to some good old fashioned detective work to really locate the suspects in these cases,” Thim says.

Thim says one thing that has helped track down copper thieves is a law passed by the Anchorage Assembly in 2017. It requires scrap metal dealers to record their transactions including the name and address of the person the metal was purchased from, as well as the license plate of their vehicle. That information is put on a computer database and shared with police.

Sellers must also sign a form that states the metal isn't stolen.

Scrap metal dealers who don't comply with the law can be fined up to $500. Copper theft of over $50 in value is considered a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine.

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