March 17, 2010

Bent on ending thefts of metal


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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, February 1, 2008....Pat Murphy, manager at Maine Metals Recycling in Auburn, shows an automobile's catalytic converter which contains small amounts of valuable metals and also a box of stripped old copper wire during a tour of his plant. Both items are often stolen and resold to metal recyclers.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, February 1, 2008....A box of copper tubing sits in the warehouse at Maine Metals Recycling in Auburn. The increased value of copper has made it popular with thieves looking to resell it to metal recycling businesses.

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Staff Writer

AUBURN — Pat Murphy, the general manager of scrap metal yards in Portland and Auburn, says thieves who deal in stolen scrap hurt his legitimate customers and his business.

He recalls losing about $10,000 worth of scrap, mostly catalytic converters, before he discovered that thieves had cut a small hole in a metal warehouse wall to get inside and haul the hefty metal pieces out.

''It was like preventing a mouse from getting into your house,'' he said, noting that security has been beefed up since then.

Murphy and others in the metal recycling business are backing a bill in the Legislature that aims to reduce scrap metal theft by requiring dealers to collect information about their purchases and share it with police.

The bill would require each metals dealer to keep an accurate record, including name, address, birthday and driver's license number, of any customer who sells more than $50 worth of scrap metal. The record would include a description of the type of metal sold and its form, such as pipe or wire.

''The record-keeping that's required will help law enforcement to trace things,'' said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who sponsored the bill.

Dealers are now supposed to get the names of sellers, but there is little enforcement. The bill suggests that violating the law would be a misdemeanor.

Growing economies in China and India are driving up the prices of industrial metals, particularly copper, which is ubiquitous in wire and piping.

Unlike stolen televisions or laptop computers, for example, industrial metals can be hard to identify and there is an established, legitimate market for buying and selling scrap.

Victims of metal theft include people whose cars' catalytic converters have been cut out for the platinum inside; Central Maine Power Co., which has lost grounding wire; and even the city of Portland, which had 10 tons of copper wire stolen from lights on its East End Trail.

Nobody opposed the bill during a public hearing in January before the Business, Research and Economic Development Committee.

Sen. Lynn Bromley, D-South Portland, the Senate chairwoman, said the committee wants input from police to be sure the additional regulations would really help. The committee plans another work session on the bill before voting on it.

''The law is supported by the industry, and I believe it will ultimately be presented and passed in most states,'' said Dave Murphy, who spoke in favor of the bill.

Dave Murphy, Pat Murphy's father, ran Maine Metal Recycling for 30 years before selling it recently to Schnitzer Steel Industries. ''I think (the bill) will afford better tracking, and I think it's going to change the situation,'' he said.

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, which represents 1,500 scrap dealers nationwide, is tracking 127 pieces of legislation now being considered in 26 states to address metals theft.

Roughly half of the states in the country have passed some form of regulation designed to reduce theft, said Chuck Carr, the institute's spokesman.

The organization maintains a bulletin board of reported copper thefts on its Web site, which has led to several arrests, Carr said.

Much of Maine's scrap metal comes from major businesses such as paper mills, utilities and maufacturers. A second segment is small-time operators who have steady routes for collecting scrap and selling to dealers. Also, there are the occasional sellers, people who clean out a garage or renovate a house.

Dealers are in a unique position to identify stolen metal because they know what to look for, said Pat Murphy, general manager of Schnitzer Northeast. He pointed to cardboard boxes brimming with copper tubing brought in by plumbers and obsolete wire sold by electricians.

''If I see three young kids in a VW Jetta with 200 pounds of bright copper in the trunk, I'm going to ask them some questions,'' he said.

Murphy said he won't accuse anyone of stealing, but will gather information in case police or customers report a theft.

There are levels of metal theft, and no additional regulation can stop them all, Dave Murphy said.

Requiring dealers to keep better records can help deter small-time thefts, he said.

Then there's the sophisticated heist, such as the theft of 2,100 feet of copper wire from the lights along East End Trail. Police said the wire was worth about $40,000 as scrap.

''That wasn't any peddler that did that. That was like a bank heist,'' Dave Murphy said, noting that the metal probably was sold out of state.

Portland Deputy Police Chief William Ridge said good record-keeping by dealers would make it easier for police to track down thieves, but the success of the legislation will depend on compliance.

''From some businesses, we get very good records. They're legible, they ask for identification,'' Ridge said. ''Other businesses, we don't. It's stuff you can't read, people have clearly made up names and nobody checked, and they've accepted that as good.''

Berry sees the new regulations as a major step forward.

''All the states really need to enact legislation of this kind, that is not an undue burden for the scrap metal recyclers but creates a united front against the black market in metals,'' he said.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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Additional Photos

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, February 1, 2008....A pallet of metal alloy wheels at Maine Metals Recycling in Auburn. These too are common theft items by thieves looking to resell them to metal recycling businesses.


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