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Competing city, county and state scrap metal theft legislation adds up to a shotgun approach that misses the target


An extensive matrix of metal theft legislation pending in state legislatures contains a number of common themes, but also suggests something of a "crazy quilt" approach to the issue. Some of the proposed state measures apply only to copper, while others cover only scrap metal or all metals and materials.

States and cities across the United States are struggling to get a handle on the problem, with thefts ranging from several sets of aluminum bleachers at a Washington high school football field only blocks from the Capitol to guard rails along the scenic Pali Highway near Honolulu, to dangerous situations involving utility and power lines that in some cases has resulted in the death of the thief.

Unfortunately, the trend shows no signs of abating any time soon. The combination of higher metal prices and the worst economy since the Great Depression has brought all sorts of new opportunities for metal thieves. Catalytic converters containing palladium and platinum are being ripped out of vehicles; aluminum siding is being pulled off houses; and copper pipe and wiring is being stripped out of foreclosed homes in Detroit, Cleveland and many other distressed urban areas.

But state and local efforts to cope with the issue have been piecemeal at best. California took a number of seemingly significant steps at the end of 2008, with the state Assembly and Senate passing five separate pieces of legislation attempting to deal with the burgeoning problem there. Effective Jan. 1 this year, the nation's most populous state cracked down specifically on thefts of catalytic converters by mandating that metal recyclers maintain a paper trail on their purchases.

All told, 46 states and countless cities and counties have significantly tightened the penalties for metal theft or imposed tougher requirements on scrap dealers, according to Jonathan Levy, director of state and local programs at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) government relations unit.

Levy has done yeoman's work in compiling a state-by-state capsule report on pending legislation, although he's reluctant to attempt to "handicap the prospects for any of these bills." A look at several, which are among hundreds, gives an inkling of the scope of the bills pending this year:

Colorado: Proposed legislation would require the buyer of the "commodity metal" to photograph the seller, keep the photo for three years and cross reference it with the records of the sale.

Hawaii: Pending legislation would require removal of the sunset provision on its existing law covering copper thefts.

Minnesota: Three separate metal theft-related bills are pending. One would toughen identification requirements for scrap metal sales, requiring identification as well as civil liability; another would increase the penalties for metal thefts involving copper or aluminum wire, cable and tubing; and a third would modify the existing criminal justice code to cover metal thefts.

New York: One bill would require those pledging goods to a collateral loan broker or selling goods to a second-hand dealer to sign a sworn written statement, and provide punishment for false statements. Another bill would establish a statewide task force on metal thefts.

Pennsylvania: Pending legislation would allow a scrap processor or recycling facility operator to purchase new production scrap or new materials from either individuals or companies "only if the purchase occurs with a commercial enterprise."

South Carolina: Proposed legislation would prohibit a person from transporting more than 25 pounds of nonferrous metal unless the person possesses a bill of sale signed by "certain designated retail or wholesale dealers of scrap metal."

A common theme in many of the measures is a requirement for scrap dealers to record ID information or, in some cases, to photograph or thumbprint sellers of material above a specified dollar amount, Levy said.

Despite these moves, the problem remains a stubborn one. And it appears to be getting worse despite an aggressive approach by the scrap industry itself, which is working closely with law enforcement officials in an attempt to stem the wave of metal and material thefts.

All sides agree that a key factor driving thefts has been the sharp jump in metal prices in recent years. With the value of copper more than doubling last year alone, few expect the problem to ease in the near term. Some also suggest that drugs play an important role, with more metal thefts likely to occur in places where the use of methamphetamine is heavy.

Spot copper prices on the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange ended 2009 at $3.3275 per pound, up from $1.444 per pound at the start of the year. In early January this year, prices edged even higher to reach $3.4775 per pound.

"It's very clear that the frequency of thefts is tied to metal prices," ISRI president Robin Wiener said in a telephone interview. "Yes .?.?. there is a greater frequency (of thefts) because prices are higher this year than they were last year."

Wiener cited the success of ISRI's expanded scrap theft alert system in stemming the rising tide of thefts, thanks to much quicker response times. "We are very excited about the fact that we now have over 1,100 law enforcement officers actively participating in this program," she said. "What's changed in the past year is that we have invested money to create a Web-based system allowing law enforcement officers to subscribe for free. This allows a more immediate response and it is paying dividends for us."

Gary Bush, a former Florida police detective who heads the group's metal theft prevention effort, "has worked extremely hard," Wiener said. As a result, ISRI now has a "highly effective" theft prevention operation via its ScrapTheftAlert Web site.

Wiener noted that ISRI has been active with its alert system for "many years," and said the trade group converted to e-mail alerts from a fax-based system about four years ago.

Bush said he believes most ISRI members are "on the same page" about how to combat the problem. "We are trying to reach out to local law enforcement officers wherever possible," he said. "It's a two-way street. They (law enforcement officers) are more than glad to work with you, so give them a chance .?.?. that's been our message."

During the price spike of 2006 and 2007 "everybody may have been caught with their pants down, so to speak," Bush said. With prices moving up substantially once again in the past year, "we're trying not to get caught with our pants down this time around."

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