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Metal theft legislation proposed to stop growing problem

ATLANTA -- Flanked by a grocery buggy filled with metal parts, a coalition of leaders called on the General Assembly on Thursday to take action to curb metal theft.

The crime, which has tripled in the past 12 months, has cost AT&T alone about $1.2 million in losses in a year. Victims include cemeteries, where flower urns disappear overnight, churches, where summer services are canceled when air conditioning parts are stripped, and governments, whose street signs and manhole covers are boosted. Railroad spikes are pulled from the ground, and grocery carts are stolen from parking lots.

Farmers in south Georgia are "pulling their hair out" over lost equipment and stripped irrigation parts, one senator said, and utility companies worry about their workers, when copper wire that grounds substations disappears. Not to mention car owners and home owners.

A coalition of leaders stood on the Capitol steps to call for a new law.

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said she introduce legislation Monday to create regulations similar to those for the pawn industry, forcing heavy metal dealers to thumbprint and register people who sell goods to them.

"What has happened to our society when we are stealing from dead people, and we can't even go to church on Sunday?" Unterman said. "It hurts many, many individuals and families.

Gwinnett County officials helped author the legislation, which requires statements of valid ownership of vehicles before scrap transactions, since cars are often destroyed within two hours of going to a scrap yard.

Last year, Gwinnett Police created a metal theft unit to go after thieves, and recent television news investigations have shown recyclers willing to purchase metal that may have been stolen, Unterman said.

Safety is also a major concern, as thieves have been killed while removing wire, utility workers are endangered and, AT&T Vice President Kevin Curtain said, the theft of telephone wire can leave people without the ability to call 911 in an emergency.

"We will hopefully save lives in the future," Curtain said.

Sen. Jesse Stone of Augusta said the problem is also rural, with farmers losing crops because of worthless irrigation equipment and food banks have even had their refrigeration stripped.

"We hope that by focusing on preventing copper theft we can nip this problem in the bud," he said. "It's hard to imagine what goes through their mind. It's not easy, and it's dangerous."

With several bills on the topic already introduced in the House and Senate, Unterman said she expects action in the coming months.

"It's a predominant issue in the 2012 General Assembly session," the Buford Republican said. "The pawn industry cleaned themselves up. Why can't the recycling industry clean themselves up too?"