Considerable fanfare when
the Secondary Metal Theft Prevention Act of 2009 was introduced
early in the congressional session-an attempt to set a federal
baseline for states rushing headlong to pass legislation of
their own-failed to speed the bill through Congress.
But prospects appear to be much
improved this year, with a series of negotiations under way on
Capitol Hill involving industry and trade groups, law
enforcement organizations and committee staffers.
"There's definitely still interest in
getting this done this year," said Robin Wiener, president of
the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Washington.
"There is still significant interest in both the House and the
One big stumbling block last year was
the fact that ISRI, the major trade group for the recycling
industry, strongly opposed the thrust of the bills-H.R.1006
sponsored by Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.) and Rep. Lee Terry
(R., Neb.) and S.418 sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D.,
Minn.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah). The pending legislation
would place the burden on the scrap industry, with heavy
paperwork requirements and stiff penalties for violations,
rather than where it belongs-on the criminals stealing the
material in the first place, according to ISRI.
Bryan Jacobs, executive director of the
Coalition Against Copper Theft, which strongly backs the
Secondary Metal Theft Prevention Act, believes the measure
could move much faster this year. He rates prospects for
passage as "fairly good," citing what he termed "conservative"
estimates from the U.S. Energy Department that copper wire
thefts alone cost the economy more than $1 billion annually.
Jacobs met with Klobuchar and other key backers of the bill in
The coalition consists of 21 trade
groups that have seen their operations severely impacted by the
wave of material thefts. These include heavy hitters such as
the American Public Power Association, the National Rural
Electric Cooperative Association, the National Retail
Federation, the National Association of Home Builders,
Associated Builders and Contractors, the Association of
American Railroads and the Telecommunications Industry
Association, plus a handful of others, such as the Florida Law
Enforcement Property Recovery Unit and the Sheet Metal and Air
Conditioning Contractors' National Association.
"(Klobuchar) wants to do something as
soon as possible on this," Jacobs said in a telephone
interview. He hinted strongly that the legislation is likely to
move ahead as now written and that any changes, such as those
sought by ISRI or others, would be made in committee.
Jacobs cited two prime factors likely
to spur Congress to pass a federal law: rising metal prices and
the connection between drug use and metal thefts in many parts
of the country. "The sense of urgency on this is going to be
intensified the more copper prices go up," he said, pointing to
a 140-percent increase in copper prices last year. When this
was "red hot back in February 2008" copper prices were around
$4 per pound, but interest cooled somewhat as prices fell. "But
now it's back up to $3.50 and rising."
Testimony from law enforcement
officials at Senate hearings held by Klobuchar last year also
spurred congressional interest in the measure. "They made it
clear at the hearings that there's a definite link between
metal thefts and drug use," Jacobs said.
"We would support federal theft
legislation that works," Wiener said. "But these bills will not
work. We favor stronger measures that prevent theft and that
prosecute the thieves." Meaningful federal legislation must
include stiff penalties that target thieves, provide incentives
for local law enforcement training and set up regional
coalitions, and foster collaborative efforts between law
enforcement agencies, victims and scrap recyclers, according to
"Metal thefts are causing power
outages, downing phone lines, disrupting delivery of products,
and cost business and homeowners billions of dollars a year,"
Stupak, co-chairman of the Congressional Law Enforcement Caucus
and a member of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on
Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, said in a statement
issued by his office.
The proposed federal law would mandate
that scrap dealers document all metal transactions and would
prohibit any cash transactions of more than $75. Scrapyards
would face civil penalties of up to $10,000 if they fail to
properly document their transactions.
Early this year it appeared that
Stupak, closely involved in crafting the bill from the outset,
might enter the race for Michigan governor, which could have
limited his ability to push the bill through the House. But he
later decided to stay out of that contest, and congressional
staffers suggested this could boost its prospects as well.
One staffer suggested that both the
Senate and the House might play "little ball" in 2010, with
crucial off-year elections in November that could alter the
current balance in both houses of Congress. There's "a fatigue
factor" setting in for major legislation following the collapse
of sweeping initiatives on health-care reform, climate change
and financial services reform, he said. This could boost
efforts on less high-profile matters, such as metal theft
prevention, where some consensus already exists.
Is congressional passage possible this
year? "Absolutely," Wiener said. With health-care reform
apparently derailed, "no one knows for certain what will be on
the agenda for this year. I can tell you that Stupak's office
still has a very strong interest in it."
"It's still in the typical grinder of the
legislative process up there," an ISRI spokesman said. "We're
continuing to meet with staffers on both the House and Senate
side to see if we can reach some sort of accommodation."