Beware of the new bogeyman-your local scrap
metal dealer. "Barely a day goes by without news of an
audacious burglary pulled off by thieves intending to mine
scrap metal from purloined items," the Kansas City
Star said in an editorial in mid-August. The newspaper
then proceeded to enumerate the Midwest city's latest victims
the Kansas City Firefighters Memorial Fountain, copper tubing
stolen from refrigerators at the City Union Mission warehouse
and bleacher seats from a local middle school.
Theft is difficult to prevent and prosecute,
the newspaper said, but scrap metal companies can help limit
the damage. Kansas passed legislation requiring dealers to log
the names and addresses of customers selling scrap metal worth
$50 or more, and sellers must produce a photo ID. These are
reasonable steps, the newspaper said, and that's true
Dealers are following the new rules-and doing even more to try
to stem the thievery. For instance, the Institute of Scrap
Recycling Industries, the Washington-based trade organization,
has established an e-mail hotline that quickly alerts dealers
and processors in neighboring states to watch for stolen
But the Kansas City Star's comments
are mild compared with witch-hunts elsewhere. In Somerville,
Mass., the mayor appointed a Neighborhood Impact Team-including
police, fire and inspection agency officials-to round up
"violators." Their first stop was Atlas Metals, a small local
scrapyard in the city. As a result of the raid, according to
one news report, Atlas Metals faces an armload of fines and
possible building closure after the inspection team uncovered
such high crimes as a lack of exit signs and proper lighting,
diminished aisles and improper storage.
And, the newspaper said, the company's owners
could face criminal charges because one police officer
thought-thought-some of the scrap metals might be
stolen. That was in mid-July. Thus far, no criminal charges
have been filed. The company's owners, it should be noted, have
agreed to comply with all demands and safety measures.
Today, the rising value of metals,
particularly copper, has turned petty, opportunistic thieves
into grand larcenists. There have always been those who would
loot an unoccupied house of its copper pipe and wire to finance
their drinking or drug addiction or simply just because they
knew metal was there and nobody was watching. Today, it has
become a lot more lucrative.
But these are not scrap dealers. They are not
even what the scrap trade normally calls peddlers. Peddlers are
the thousands of tradesmen like plumbers and electricians that
replace plumbing and wiring in houses and take the old pipe and
wire to a scrapyard where they have done business for years. Or
they are the guys with the pickup trucks that make weekly trips
to local auto repair shops and small machine shops, buy
discarded alternators and other metals and then sort and
dismantle them to sell to the larger scrap dealers and
processors when the price is right.
Now, the local scrap metal dealers in many
cities and towns across the country have become the bogeymen
responsible for metal thefts because they bought a truckload of
chopped wire or pipe from someone who pulled onto the scale.
They often have little or no idea where the metal came from,
and many of the thieves are smart enough to cut up the pipe and
wire and remove any markings that would indicate ownership by a
utility, say, or a railroad.
Part of the reason why scrap dealers have
been singled out is because they occupy a fixed space in the
community. Never mind they have contributed to the tax base and
provided employment for people with little or no work skills.
No. They've become the focus of suspicion because everyone
knows where they are. TV and newspaper reporters can gather at
their front gates for a press conference by any number of
lawmakers-from local alderman to state assemblyman-looking for
a photo op or sound bite condemning those who supposedly
Scrap metal processors and dealers are not
thieves, at least the vast majority I've met and known over the
past 30-some years covering scrap markets. They are businessmen
and women who provide a needed service to the community and the
economy. Many handle only industrial scrap accounts and never
see the so-called street or retail trade in scrap, where most
of the metal thieves sell their plunder.
The real bogeymen are those who would sink as
low as to steal a cemetery monument, metal flashing or a plaque
commemorating slain heroes simply because it was not nailed
down securely enough.