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Whether from government regulators or the neighbor next door, the scrap industry is perpetually under fire


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 Kingdom.

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 islands.

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 table.

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 their activities.

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 strong.

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 from neighbors.

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 bombs.

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