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FULL OF SCRAP Scrap dealers make easy targets, especially in the dark


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 enough.

Michael Marley
Michael Marley
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 materials.

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 promote thievery.

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.

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