01172018Wed
Last updateTue, 16 Jan 2018 4pm

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Industry, Government Strike Back at Metal Thieves

scrap_metal.jpgscrap_metal.jpgThe theft of valves for their scrap metal value that began several years ago continues, although law enforcement, legislatures and industry associations are increasingly recognizing the seriousness of the problem. Since the price of metals began to rise dramatically several years ago, thieves have ripped off metals wherever they could and sold them into the recycling industry.

In rural California, thieves target irrigation valves. Rural areas are particularly vulnerable because the valves are exposed and law enforcement cannot patrol the vast areas where valves and pipes are located. In cities, backflow valves at commercial and apartment buildings have been especially targeted. Thieves even dress in bright jump suits to look like utility workers and saw off backflow valves in broad daylight. In some cases, valves are sold back for use as valves, but it is thought that many are merely sold into scrap yards for eventual meltdown and recycling.

Thieves target far more than valves. They rip out almost any sort of metal, but especially copper, brass and stainless steel. Prime targets are metal in homes under construction, manhole covers and exposed copper wire – even on poles and transmission towers. Thieves swipe catalytic converters from cars, air conditioning condensers, fire hydrants, sprinkler system valves and pipes, water meters, and more. They receive scant dollars for their efforts but the farmers, building owners, home builders and others have to buy new equipment and pay to have it installed, costing them thousands of dollars. Of course, there is the safety element as well: buildings without electricity or water, or city blocks without operating hydrants are endangered.

Efforts to quash the plague extend to law enforcement, legislation, training for equipment owners and scrap metal industry crackdowns. Police are encouraging victims to notify law enforcement immediately so they in turn can notify recyclers about what to look for. Some police departments are beginning to work more closely with recyclers. For example, an Indiana company called OmniSource helped law enforcement make 161 arrests in the first six months of this year. OmniSource employs off-duty officers at their retail locations; the officers often attend when persons bring scrap metal to the scale, looking for suspicious behavior or materials. They also are encouraging owners with some new tactics, like painting their valves in bright colors, locking them behind bars, stamping them with personal codes, hiding them with vegetation and posting signs that warn of prosecution for metals theft.

The California state senate recently passed a bill that requires recyclers to hold payment for three days, to photograph sellers and items, and to thumbprint sellers. The bill also raises penalties for metals theft and requires restitution for collateral damage caused on account of a theft.

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) has also been working on the problem. It is recommending to its member companies the kinds of action called for by the California bill. ISRI also has started a Theft Alert System, an emailing program that quickly alerts recyclers and scrap yards when materials have been stolen, where and of what kind. ISRI also recommends that prosecutors place a higher priority on the thievery of metals in hopes that more convictions and stiffer sentences reverse the trend of metals thefts.

Brooke Stoddard is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, VA.

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