10/10/2011 04:10 EDT | Updated 12/09/2011 05:12 EST

B.C. government moving to put a vice on metal recyclers over safety and loss

VANCOUVER - Metal thieves will take just about anything to make a few bucks at the nearest recycling company, from telephone and power wires to manhole covers and memorial plaques.

Those brazen acts have now gained the attention of the British Columbia government, which intends to stem rampant metal theft with new legislation this fall.

B.C. Solicitor General Shirley Bond said her government recognizes that the issue has a huge economic impact, but it's public safety that is behind the planned new law.

"Any time we see 911 going down as a result of metal theft, we have to do something about it," she said.

Shawn Hall, a spokesman with Telus, said there has been 200 incidents this year alone of copper cable stolen from the telephone company and in each incident the phone lines are down for up to 36 hours.

"Make no mistake about it, these thieves are putting our customers' lives at risk. It's only a matter of time before someone tried to dial 911 and can't because someone's cut our line."

It's not just customers who are put at risk, those trying to steal wire from telephone poles or at power substations are also putting their lives on the line.

In Maple Ridge, B.C., last year a man made the fatal mistake of cutting a tension line holding up a pole while trying to steal wire.

The line snapped back with such force it broke the pole which fell on the man, killing the man, Hall said.

Many others had been injured in the same way, including one man whose fingers were pulled out by a snapping cable. Police later arrested him in hospital.

Thieves have also been electrocuted trying to steal power lines at B.C. Hydro, but a Hydro spokesperson couldn't say how many of the six fatalities since 2007 involving members of the public were related to metal theft.

In a statement, B.C. Hydro said metal theft is a growing problem and last quarter's loss of product and damage to facilities cost about $750,000.

Hall said the cable loss has cost the utility about $10 million so far this year.

"So what we're looking for is legislation that would give the police the tools they need to shut down the bad operators in the industry, and thus shut down the demand for stolen material," said Hall.

Bond wouldn't reveal details of the bill until it's presented in the legislature, but said they want to be able to track metal sales in the province.

"Lets face it, if we know the name and we know who you are, it's a lot harder to actually sell that (stolen) metal."

Len Shaw, of the Canadian Association of Recycling Industries, has been consulted by the B.C. government on the new laws and said unscrupulous dealers won't disappear, they'll just go underground to avoid the law.

"So now if you put terrible laws in place for an individual ... and you do get organized crime — and frankly the larger the theft the more likely it is organized — it just gets put in the containers, it's shipped overseas, you won't find it," Shaw said in a telephone interview from Ottawa.

Many Vancouver-area municipalities have regulated the sale of scrap metals and dealers need to record transactions, take picture identification and in some cases have had to install closed circuit TV and supply that information to police when necessary.

Shaw said blanket regulations for the entire province are better, but he would also like to see better federal laws regulating the industry and even stronger criminal laws for someone who endangers a life for a few dollars worth of metal.

"Lets make it a serious crime," he said. "We have some clown here in Ottawa (who) stole about 150 manhole covers. If you steal a manhole cover, you have to be extremely dumb not to recognize that you're creating a hazard."

Shaw said his industry doesn't want to see a tag-and-hold system for dealers, which would see operators store the metal for a set period before it's recycled.

He said that would add too much administrative costs and most dealers don't have the space to hold such a volume for that long.

"It would actually put recyclers out of business," he added.

In some ways, Shaw said, metal theft is out of lawmakers hands because it goes up and down with the price of metal on world markets.

"If you could stop the price going up, you could stop the theft," he said. "It's basically uncontrollable because it's a commodity."