Thefts of Scrap Metal Soar with Prices

Jan. 26, 2007
Industrial sites hit with thefts, as industry fights new security problem

HARTFORD - A dozen times in less than a year thieves have hit the shuttered Chemetco industrial complex.

This time, three suspects tripped alarms about 3:30 a.m. Monday and briefly showed their faces to security cameras. The Madison County Sheriff's Office responded, but the trio escaped.

Detectives say the thieves are after valuable scrap metal, despite the presence of hazardous slag and sludge on the 40-acre site.

"They go and lift some metal and they sell it, and they can get a few hundred bucks for it," said Sheriff's Lt. Brad Wells, who is investigating the Monday morning break-in. "It's happening all around the state and country."

With scrap metal prices holding well above historic norms, especially for copper and aluminum, thieves seem ready to risk life and limb for the once-not-very-precious metals. The spate of thefts - from copper downspouts off houses to cable at cell phone towers - has law enforcement and the Illinois and Missouri legislatures clamoring for answers.

In both states, legislation is being proposed to require metal recyclers to set up registries of their suppliers, adding a layer of disclosure and a potential investigative trail to the sometimes loose trade of scrap metal.

"It's similar in concept to the pawnbroker rules - keeping an accurate record of just who is bringing in goods for sale," said state Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, who plans to sponsor legislation. "It'll make it easier on the police to locate a stolen item. We've got to do something, because this is getting out of control."

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen is expected to consider a similar measure.

This past winter a telephone substation in Godfrey was hit twice, Wells said. The bankrupt Chemetco plant, under seal by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, is a continual target.

In East. St. Louis, thieves at a church ignored the collection plate and instead went for copper tubing from three massive air conditioners and aluminum gutters and downspouts.

In St. Louis, there's a new scrap metal theft reported practically every day, police said. Houses under construction are a popular target for piping, but thieves have even stolen plumbing out from under occupied homes.

And they've gotten consistently more daring. Last month, an electric substation was hit for copper electrical cables. The incident knocked out power for a while to a nursing home in north St. Louis.

Reports have come in of drug addicts' dredging up scrap metal and turning it into cash for their habits, police said. And according to reports from around the area, thieves have struck cell phone towers from O'Fallon, Mo., to Kansas City for cables.

High-grade copper sold for as high as $2.40 a pound on Thursday, well above historical norms. The price went as high as about $3.50 a pound last year, almost entirely because of demand from China.

"This is the criminal version of supply and demand," said Missouri state Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, sponsor of a scrap metal measure. "Now that the salvage price for scrap metal has gotten so high, a lot of thieves are engaging in some pretty bold criminal activity."

Metal scrap buyers say they want to help police but are resistant to measures they say would be burdensome. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, the major Washington lobby for the industry, has opposed proposals that would require recyclers to tag and separate material as it came in.

The Illinois and Missouri proposals right now would only require the companies to document who is bringing material to be sold, something that is more palatable to the industry, said Allan Roodman, an owner of Top Metal Buyers Inc.

Managers at Roodman's East St. Louis company already screen small sellers and accept metal only from people with whom they feel comfortable. They also get online alerts from the lobbying group to track and identify suspicious sales.

"We want to work with the police, and a log wouldn't really be too much of a burden," Roodman said. "But keeping all material separate and holding it for inspection, well, that's just not going to be feasible."