The cold, hard facts on scrap metal theft
The Berkshire Eagle
As legislation stumbles, Berkshire County businesses begin to talk about what should be done
PITTSFIELD — No. 2 scrap copper was bringing $1.75 a pound Tuesday at Perlman Recycling in Pittsfield. A sturdy cardboard bin of it sat half-filled on a pallet inside the company’s South Merriam Street facility, not far from “bright” copper worth even more.
For years, lawmakers have agreed a law is needed to help counter what one state senator called an “epidemic” of metal thefts later sold as scrap.
Despite bills dating to 2009, the Massachusetts Legislature has been unable to pass a measure to regulate the scrap metals business.
Meantime, the theft problem persists.
Last week, two men stopped by Pittsfield police on South Merriam Street were found to be transporting $13,500 worth of copper wire. One of them told police he’d been given it. But police linked the high-voltage wire to a theft from Eversource — and brought larceny charges.
As 2017 gets underway, lawmakers are returning to the drawing board, even as an industry official and a Berkshires business owner say the problem is already being handled by responsible metal dealers.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an epidemic, no,” Gregory Mitko, president of the New England Chapter of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, told The Eagle. “The prices attract the thieves. Now prices are half that. It’s hand-to-mouth right now, the margins are so miniscule.”
Last year, the House and Senate unanimously passed versions of scrap metal bills but Democratic legislative leaders couldn’t agree on a consensus bill. In December, movement on the bill during the final days of the 2015-2016 session sparked hope among supporters who have worked on the measure for years.
“I think we get closer every year,” said Colin Kelly, public affairs director for Schnitzer Steel Industries, which has locations in Everett, Attleboro and Worcester. He said, “I had optimism at the last week of the session when it looked like they were going to move the bill.”
State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, has been a co-sponsor of earlier legislation. This week, he was reviewing the 5,700 bills that seek co-sponsors and believes he will sign on again to this effort.
“The point is to protect both the people who run the scrap yards and also protect consumers,” said Mark, who represents the 2nd Berkshire District.
Any protections would come too late for the George B. Crane Memorial Center in Pittsfield, which was hit by thieves when its 81 Linden St. building was going up a few years ago. In all, 120 feet of heavy-duty copper electrical cable was stolen, presumably for its value in the scrap market.
“They took it out and cut it up for drugs,” said Douglas Malins, the center’s president.
One company’s view
Bill Apkin, co-owner with his brother Joe of George Apkin & Sons Inc., a scrap metals business in North Adams and Adams, says dealers already know to be on the lookout for fraudulent sales.
“Any legitimate scrap dealer takes precautions,” he told The Eagle Wednesday.
Apkin said he learned only this week that attempts to legislate the issue of stolen metal are being revived. While he recognizes that a problem exists, Apkin said he feels lawmakers don’t understand this business.
“It’s important to have legislation that’s reasonable,” he said. “It’s a matter of where the burden is placed.”
Not reasonable, in his view, would be a requirement that dealers impound all scrap received for a period of days. “That’s burdensome. And it doesn’t really solve the problem.”
Though this time of year can be slow in the business, Apkin & Sons is processing 50 to 60 transactions a day. If it had to segregate incoming materials for 10 days, as a Senate version of the bill has proposed, that would be unworkable, forcing it to hold metals taken in from up to 600 transactions.
On top of that, Apkin disputes the notion that most scrap metal, such as sections of copper pipe, could be later identified as linked to a particular theft.
“I don’t think there’s anybody who could tell the difference,” he said.
He believes that a better approach is to be selective on the “tag and hold” requirement of a law, initiating it only when specific, identifiable items are reported stolen.
Filed every session since 2009, scrap metal bills passed both branches in 2010 and 2011, cleared the Senate in 2013, and passed both branches in 2015-2016.
Rep. Ronald Mariano and Sen. James Timilty have each re-filed legislation that would require scrap metal dealers to register with police and keep a daily record of transactions.
In April 2016, the Senate passed its version of the bill as an amendment to the House bill, which was passed in October 2015. Then the bill slipped into an abyss for months. On Dec. 28, with a week left in the two-year session, the House rejected the Senate amendment. The bills died shortly thereafter.
Even without a law, some metal scrap dealers insist they work to foil criminal efforts.
At Perlman Recycling in Pittsfield, a list with more than a dozen names on it bars transactions with people who have been caught trying to sell stolen metal.
“I applaud them for that,” said Mitko, of the trade group. “If only more people did that.”
Dealers say they lose as well, when metal linked to a theft is taken as evidence or to be returned to its rightful owner after being purchased.
An employee at Perlman this week referred questions to company owner Paul Ferretti, who on Wednesday referred to proposed legislation as “a mixed bag,” but declined further comment.
Another Berkshires state representative, Gailanne M. Cariddi, D-North Adams, said she toured George Apkin & Sons to better understand the problem.
“I was very impressed with their operation,” Cariddi said.
But she believes new rules can help.
“I think some regulation is needed to be consistent through the commonwealth,” she said.
While falling scrap prices may be lessening the problem now, that’s likely to change, Cariddi noted. “Those prices can go back up. To have something in place that is consistent would be important.”
Tracing stolen items
One of the chief goals behind the bills is to give law enforcement time to trace allegedly stolen metal items.
The House and Senate bills differed on the length of time scrap processors or recycling facilities would be required to hold material that matches a law enforcement officer’s description of a stolen item.
The House set a maximum 48-hour hold, with an extension allowed by clerk magistrate order. The Senate called for a hold of up to 10 days, while also setting higher fines and creating a Secondary Metals Registry Trust Fund where fines would be deposited.
One person involved in the scrap trade in the Berkshires said that if companies are compelled to hold on to metal, they might lose money if prices fall from what they were when the scrap was received.
Mitko, of the trade group, said steps already being taken are addressing the theft problem. They include keeping track of who has sold metal.
And on a national level, his group runs on interactive website, scraptheftalert.com, that exchanges information on stolen goods. As of Tuesday, it listed 469 reports of metal thefts in Massachusetts, with $1,500 worth of metal recovered.
“We work with the authorities, we invite them into the yards,” said Mitko, who works for ELG Utica Alloys in Hartford, Conn. “We want to be the good guys.”
Larry Parnass can be reached at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.