When David Burke and other homeless men like him made cash riding the rails 20 years ago, by pulling a few pounds of metal from freights loaded with scrap, the missing cargo would go unnoticed.
Today, however, local governments and state legislators have noticed that highway guardrails, thousands of feet of wire, and all kinds of metal pipes from construction sites come up missing every day. On top of that, police agencies across the nation are responding to an increasing number of crimes associated with scrap metal.
It’s because scrapping just isn’t what it used to be. Today, the price of copper is around $2.50 a pound and aluminum is half that. And recycling yards will pay anywhere between 10 to 80 cents a pound depending on the quality and demand of the metal.
Anyone willing or desperate enough can steal a few hundred pounds of metal to make a small fortune — one made quickly that is also hard to track. According to King County Sheriff spokesman John Urquhart, metal theft in King County and Western Washington is a growing epidemic. Similar to identity theft, though much more dangerous, easier, and less time consuming, authorities say metal theft most often occurs as the result of a methamphetamine addiction.
In an attempt to stop this growing trend of metal theft and the exploitation of scrap metal sales from thieves throughout the state, leaders in Olympia have proposed two companion bills that will discourage recyclers from buying stolen metals.
House Bill 1251 and Senate Bill 5312 both aim to establish new requirements for selling metal to scrap yards and will make it a law for yard owners to maintain diligent records of all its transactions worth over $100.
The law would prohibit buyers from paying cash and require them to record the seller’s driver’s license and get a mailing address to send a check as payment after a 30-day waiting period.
While this may affect shop owners and metal thieves, little will change for the old-school junk collectors and the small-time recyclers who dig up cans, bottles, and other items from the dumpster, according to Se. Rodney Tom (D-Bellevue), one of the primary sponsors of the bill.
The legislation is designed to put an end to the large-scale thefts and the black-market forces that encourage them, Tom says.
Urquhart says there is a huge difference between the thieves stealing wires and robbing construction sites compared to the folks pushing shopping carts full of aluminum cans, which typically earn them far less than $100.
“These people are stealing what hasn’t been thrown away yet,” Urquhart says. “The only thing in common is that the aluminum makes them money.”
Urquhart also says metal theft is putting many at risk. Though there have not been any assaults or homicides associated with metal theft in King County, people are putting themselves in danger by entering power substations and cutting live wires with high voltage. And it’s certainly always a possibility that one would harm another over scrap metal, Urquhart says.
For instance, in an industrial sector of South Bend, Indiana, police discovered the bodies of four murdered homeless men in two separate manholes last month. After investigating the crimes, police arrested and prosecutors charged two other homeless men, Randy Lee Reeder, 50, and Daniel J. Sharp, 54, with murder.
According to news reports, police are claiming the two suspects bludgeoned their victims to death because they thought the four men had sold their stash of scrap metal left in an abandoned warehouse. Days later, the suspects allegedly dragged the bodies into the manholes to conceal the crime.
David Burke, 50, a former scrapper and current Real Change vendor, says such news is hard to believe.
“I haven’t seen the times where it got so bad that people would get killed, or risk getting killed, by pulling on hot wire for a few bucks,” Burke says. “There has got to be something done because there is too much pain and hurt going on.”
Burke thinks the law is a good idea to hold the shops more accountable.
“To a certain extent, it’s obvious they know the metal is illegal,” Burke says. “If a seller has got 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of aluminum wiring, then they should have to wait for their check. But the shops are still taking it and blaming it on scrappers.”
Urquhart also sees the need to restrict the buyer to discourage thefts.
“Some of these shops are accepting metals through the back door and creating a market for thieves, because you have to go to someone in the business or the metal is worthless,” King County Sheriff spokesperson John Urquhart said.
For cart pushers, Burke says they’ll continue using the same etiquette that’s been in place for years.
“People have their routes and you know not to infringe on their territory,” Burke says.
By J. JACOB EDEL, Contributing Writer
CORRECTION IN FEB 21, 2007 ISSUE:
David Burke made money taking junk from trash heaps and picking up metal refuse strewn along the rails, not by pulling it out of existing scrap heaps. Last week’s story on scrapping (“Scrapped for Cash: Legislator hopes to curb sales of stolen metal,” Feb. 14) intimated that he stole the metal, which is not true. Real Change apologizes to David for the error.
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/02/14/feb-14-2007-entire-issue