THE COPPER WAR

GERMANY They are strange, shaggy creatures and hide in the fields. You do not see them, but they see you – even in the dark. The “yeti men” in Germany, named after the Himalayan furry abominable snow man, are Vattenfall’s most spectacular measure to fight copper theft, which has become an increasing problem all over the country. Copper thieves are wreaking havoc and causing significant financial damage. They steal copper roofing from churches, saw guttering from houses, cut the overhead wires on train lines, and pilfer reels of cable from building sites. Large companies like Vattenfall are particularly affected.

On a warm Saturday evening, while others make the most of the lovely summer’s day by lighting the barbecue, Stefan H. and Dieter G. (names changed by the editorial team) report for guard duty at the lignite field in the Lausitz. But these security men are not just going out on patrol. Dressed in camouflage suits in the colour of withered grass, they lie in ambush, equipped with night vision goggles, thermal imaging cameras and torches. Their mission: to catch copper thieves red-handed.

The well-disguised detectives are deployed at key locations, such as the open-cast mine premises at Jänschwalde or Cottbus-Nord, says Andreas Pfütsch, deputy manager of security at Vattenfall Europe Mining AG. These “yeti men” are professionally trained security personnel.  Of course, they cannot arrest the thieves, but they can catch them in the act and detain them until the police or further security personnel arrive.

Control centre keeps watch
At the control centre for security at Schwarze Pumpe power station, the colleagues are wide awake around the clock, seven days a week. In a three-shift system, eight Vattenfall employees keep watch of hotspots such as cable storage areas, building sites, entrances and exits of the open-cast mines, and in an emergency alert the police, patrol forces, security and fire brigade, who can be at the scene within minutes.

The staff has been trained in recent months for this job, and is now a “protection and security force” certified by the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce. Before this new role, they worked as caretakers, digger operators, production line inspectors or electricians.

“I have great respect for these colleagues for taking on this new task and returning to the textbooks,” says their boss and foreman of protection and security, André Wagner.

Trained personnel wear the yeti outfits for up to 12 hours per shift.

Object of desire
The thieves’ favourite venues include building sites, cable storage areas and premises used by the railway or drainage operators. Pfütsch knows all this from experience. For over 25 years, the 57-year-old has been one of those responsible for security in the district.

“Since 2006, copper theft has become a problem for the company,” says Pfütsch, who is a trained economist.

Industry lusted after this orange gold, and the price shot up rapidly. A tonne of copper cost around 1,900 euros in 2000, but by 2010 this had shot up to 7,200 euros, which made the metal a lucrative business for thieves. Although the price has since fallen – a tonne is now traded for around 4,600 euros – the thieves are continuing shamelessly.

“There is no sign of the problem abating,” says Pfütsch. The theft figures from recent years are a testament to this: in 2013 and 2014, more than 240 thefts were recorded in the five Vattenfall open-cast mines, causing losses of around 750,000 euros. In 2015 there were 70 thefts up to the end of August causing losses of 200,000 euros.

Quad bikes and drones
The Lausitz area measures 80 by 40 kilometres. This means that thefts cannot be avoided completely.

“But we can make them more difficult by taking preventative measures,” Pfütsch states.

These include marking copper cables with artificial DNA. Cable storage areas have also been fitted with surveillance equipment, supporting the security staff. Security personnel use quad bikes, which allows them to pursue thieves more quickly. Drones fly over the district with thermal imaging and video cameras. Ramparts were piled up at the entrances to the open cast mine and boulders weighing several tonnes placed in the way – the thieves also found a way to remove them though. Theft alarm systems raise the alarm if a cable is cut. Cameras designed for tracking wild animals are also installed on the site. And section by section, copper cables are being replaced with cables made from steel and aluminium. And of course, good, close cooperation with local police is indispensable.

Shameless offenders
“Despite the success the preventative measures have had, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels,” Pfütsch stresses.

He knows that perpetrators change their tactics and quickly adapt to every new security measure. They become better organised and more professional. Before attempting theft, they send out scouts to scout out the site and the goods. The perpetrators return mostly at night, equipped with professional tools and offroad vehicles. They often cut the electric cables of the pumps that keep the open-cast mines dry. By doing so they not only risk their own lives, but also hinder and endanger the mining works.

“The times when thieves used to quietly make themselves comfortable in the woods and carefully remove the insulation from cables are long gone.”

These days, they are violent and risk-taking gangs.

“On one occasion, the thieves threw tools at the security personnel, another time, they repeatedly rammed the patrol car severely,” Pfütsch explains.

Security partnership
In order to unite in fighting copper theft, large German companies have joined forces and created the security partnership SIPAM (German security partnership against metal theft). Vattenfall became a member in 2012. Experiences, preventative measures and knowledge of the thieves’ behaviour are all being shared with metal traders, recycling companies and the police. An early warning system provides information on recent metal thefts. After all, copper theft is a problem affecting the whole of Germany.

In 2009, 2,302 cases were registered in the state of Brandenburg alone with estimated losses of 4.6 million euros. In 2013, 2,373 cases were registered.

Germany is not the only country in Europe facing high levels of copper theft. In 2008 near Chleb in the Czech Republic, an entire railway bridge disappeared overnight. This is why cooperation at a European level is growing increasingly more important.

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