Oddly Enough

China-bound copper thefts stop Australian trains

CANBERRA (Reuters) - With stopped trains, stolen phone lines and pilfered power cables, Australians are paying a hefty price for China’s pre-Olympic building boom, police said on Thursday.

Workers clean up the National Stadium, also known as the "Bird's Nest" in Beijing March 13, 2008. REUTERS/China Daily

Organised gangs are being blamed by authorities for stealing copper cabling worth millions of dollars, selling it to China to help construction of buildings possibly including Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, site of Olympic ceremonies and track events.

“The theft of this stuff has caused the train system to shut down for between five and seven hours. They are not just taking small lengths. They are taking up to 500 metres at a time,” Victoria Police detective sergeant Barry Hills told Reuters.

In recent weeks police in Australia’s second most populous state have seized more than 15 tonnes of stolen copper cabling stashed in shipping containers and warehouses.

Detectives have been investigating a crime gang that in the past five years has shipped $18.5 million (9.1 million pounds) worth of black-market copper to Chinese companies involved in building construction including major Olympic venues, the Herald Sun newspaper said.

“I wouldn’t say those reports are wrong,” Hills said, declining to say more as investigations continue.

China is the world’s biggest copper user, with consumption expected to reach 5 million tonnes in 2008, up from 4.8 million tonnes last year, according to China’s chief copper smelter Jiangxi Copper Co. Ltd.

Most is used in fast-expanding power grid infrastructure, as well as construction, electronics and machinery manufacture.

Tens of thousands of Victorian commuters have been left stranded by several copper robberies, with thieves risking death by electric shock to steal the precious metal from rail networks for the energy-hungry Chinese market.

In neighbouring New South Wales state, the government has urged people to help prevent the theft after robbers ran off with communication cables and copper from electricity depots, air-conditioners and scrapped radiators. Australia is not alone. Surging demand in India and China is also driving a wave of copper thefts in the United States and the United Kingdom, making public utilities an attractive target.

“A lot of building sites are also easy targets, with appliances, stoves, sinks, bathroom fit-outs and that sort of stuff,” a New South Wales police spokeswoman said.

NSW Energy Minister Ian Macdonald this year said thieves had even stolen copper vases from a Sydney cemetery to melt down for black-market export.

Macdonald blamed copper theft for havoc on the state’s main north rail line, with hundreds of metres of copper wire stolen from signal poles.

“The global increase in copper prices is fuelled by the Chinese construction boom, with prices increasing five fold since 2001,” he said.