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Prospects for the passage of a nationwide anti-metal-theft act brighten

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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 Senate."

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 January.

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 ISRI.

"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." MARTYN CHASE


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