This time they won't have scrap dealers to blame if the
United Kingdom and Argentina start flinging bullets, bombs and
Exocet missiles at each other again.
For those who have forgotten or are too young to recall, war
broke out between the two countries in March 1982. The
precipitating incident was a group of Argentine scrap dealers
raising their nation's flag on one of the Falkland Islands.
They came to aid one of their industry members arrested for
allegedly stealing metals, but before leaving home they were
encouraged to assert their country's claim to the islands.
It was one of those rare occasions when government appeared
to be allied with the industry. In truth, those scrap dealers
were pawns in a larger dispute about sovereignty over the
islands. It was resolved-at least temporarily-by a 74-day
conflict that took the lives of 255 British and 649 Argentine
soldiers, sailors and airmen and three civilian Falklanders.
The islands remain an overseas territory of the United
Disputes between Britain and Argentina over the islands have
a long history. It has nothing to do scrap metal. Yet it was a
scrap dealer who would be seen as the offender that provoked
the war. His minor role in the drama earned the industry the
ridicule from TV talking heads and news commentators.
Now, the prospects of finding oil in the offshore areas
around the South Atlantic islands are threatening to spark a
new conflict. It is believed that undersea deposits of
petroleum and natural gas around the Falklands may be greater
than the North Sea's reserves and second only to Saudi Arabia's
holdings. As a consequence, Argentina has been rattling its
diplomatic saber, trying to reassert its sovereignty over the
The scrap industry is not among the most beloved of
industries, simply because of the nature of the business. Scrap
processors have taken the heat over the years for many reasons.
In the Falklands War, they foolishly served as the stalking
horse for the Argentine military rulers. More often,
governments regard them as foes and aim their regulatory guns
at the industry for environmental problems and other issues
like metal thefts.
Take, for example, the handling of lead-acid auto batteries.
Scrapyards bought dead batteries from their customers and
re-sold them to battery breakers and smelters without
undertaking any processing. In the 1990s, federal Environmental
Protection Agency investigators started to visit the sites of
battery breakers and discovered that acid and plastic casings
dumped on the ground had polluted both the soil and the water
After the EPA imposed fines and told the breakers and
smelters how much it would cost to clean up the site, many
folded their tents and fled. Those abandoned facilities were
then declared Superfund sites.
That allowed the EPA to pursue anyone who sold even a single
battery to these companies and to hand them the
multi-million-dollar cleanup bill. For some small mom-and-pop
yards these charges were game breakers. Several sold off their
accounts and equipment, and closed the gates. The Institute of
Scrap Recycling Industries fought to persuade Congress that the
scrapyards had not created the damage, but it took years before
Congress agreed and amended the Superfund law.
There have always been metal thieves. If something of value
isn't nailed, glued and bolted onto something immovable,
someone will walk away with it.
In recent years, when metal prices soared, those who already
had been stealing copper pipe and aluminum downspouts redoubled
Police and lawmakers generally haven't focused on the
thieves, though. Instead, they have drawn their sights on the
scrapyards and enacted ordinances requiring dealers to hold the
scrap for a week or more regardless of whether they have
sufficient space in their facilities. These laws also prevent
them from selling the metals when demand and prices are
Government regulators are not the only antagonists.
Neighbors often view scrapyards with suspicion and demand that
they shut down and move, complaining that the yards hurt
residential property values. And when they do relocate, there's
rarely a welcome mat.
Camden Iron & Metal Inc., for instance, which operates a
shredder at the foot of a bridge that leads to Philadelphia
from the city's airport, has been badgered for years. What kind
of an image is that projecting to visitors from other cities
and countries, its critics have complained.
Now Camden Iron plans to move to an empty industrial
facility in a small town downriver from the city. It would
install the shredder inside a building, thus minimizing the
noise and dust that often are the source of most complaints
Still, when the company's executives presented their plans
to the town's council in February, there were more than 100
residents on hand. Several already were hostile to the notion
of a scrapyard in their town.
So, if we unfortunately see a sequel to the 1982 conflict in
the Falklands, at least this time around the scrap industry
will not be blamed for provoking the conflict. And since the
disagreement this time is centered on potential oil riches,
perhaps the two opponents can battle it out by flinging buckets
of bunker oil and sludge at each other instead of bullets and