Securing the Salvage Yard

Dec. 8--An eight-foot fence with a foot of barb wire above it surrounds Dennis Laviage's scrap yard.

Sixteen security cameras record every move.

Thirty-foot security lighting blankets the place at night.

And an off-duty Harris County sheriff's deputy is on site full-time.

"It's a jail," said Laviage, owner of C&D Scrap Metal Recyclers. "I have a jail around my entire facility."

Though it may make C&D's yard look like a jail, the $180,000 spent on the tough security measures will help keep thieves out.

Since April, thieves have broken into his yard 11 times. It's a problem that's occurring nationwide at construction sites, scrap yards and abandoned homes as thieves make off with copper and other metals to profit from dramatically rising prices.

But Laviage is fending off more than thieves these days.

He's also defending himself against what he considers Draconian amendments proposed for a city ordinance that regulates the scrap metal industry.

Last month, police conducted a series of stings set up to combat the sale of stolen metals. Undercover officers posed as thieves and brought material to scrap metal recyclers throughout the city.

Among those arrested was a C&D employee who Laviage insists is innocent.

The worker arrested was a sweeper who knew nothing about the business and wasn't told the materials were stolen, Laviage said.

"The police are doing the best they can with what they have," Laviage said.

"But the city is on them to do something, and the way they're handling it is ridiculous. I'm not the cause of these robberies. I don't intentionally buy stolen goods. If someone tells me it's stolen, I tell them to get off my propery."

No need to ask

Laviage doesn't ask if the goods are stolen because he says he's been in the business long enough to know when someone is trying to sell him stolen merchandise.

But he does scan and save the identification of every seller and record each transaction.

Officer Johanna Abad wouldn't comment on the ongoing investigation, but said the employee would have a chance to tell his side of the story in court.

"Our undercover operations officers are very well trained in doing their job and they go in day in and day out to find out what's going on," Abad said. "They don't just bring cases on people without reason to believe they're involved."

New requirements

The rise in metal thefts has stirred interest in a series of proposed amendments to a city ordinance that, among other things, would require yards to record, tag and hold almost everything that comes in for seven days and thumb-print each person who comes in to sell metal.

Councilman Adrian Garcia plans to unveil the amendments at the city's Public Safety and Homeland Security meeting Monday.

Many thieves are so brazen because they have places to sell their wares, Garcia said.

"There are things we should have in the ordinance, as a matter of business, that we do not," Garcia said.

"Like doing things electronically. By doing these little things, it would help improve the processing of the information we're currently collecting." It would also encourage scrap yards to be more diligent, he added.

Laviage said such requirements would be too costly and burdensome because he buys 125 tons of metal a week.

The costs could put smaller yards out of business, he said.

"We here are a size where we can do what they're asking us to do, but do we want to do it? No." he said. "Because it's not reasonable."

Laviage says the police instead need to have more officers on the street patrolling.

Garcia agrees there needs to be more patrolling, but insists there also needs to be a level of corporate responsibility.

"We want to make sure we're keeping an eye on what's happening on the street, but we want to make sure if guys do get away from us it's going to be difficult for them to sell their stolen merchandise," he said.

"It would help us prevent the thefts from occurring that are occurring today."

Other amendments include requiring the yards to forward their database of sellers and items bought to the Houston Police Department daily, have dealers file a bond with their license applications, and increase license renewal fees.

Read Langford, president of Spectrum Metal Recyclers, said he understands why the city feels the need to strengthen regulation of the industry. He met with city officials this week to talk about the proposed amendments.

His yard was also inspected recently. While he doesn't agree with recent actions, he does think something needs to be done.

A need to check

He likened the recent enforcement crackdown to a parent telling a child to keep their room clean but then never checking in to make sure it's done.

"Guess what happens? Their room gets kind of dirty," he said.

" Then if I pop in all of a sudden unannounced, well, that's how the scrap community feels.

"We need to do things better, there's no doubt. We first have to get some ordinances on the books that one, they can regulate, and two, we can understand and enforce."

Copyright (c) 2006, Houston Chronicle Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.


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