Scavenging for Scrap

Paris Elder (right), an employee at Lenox Junk Co. in Dorchester, helped Bernardo Urena of Lynn sort through scrap metal. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)


By David Abel  |  Globe Staff |  Sept. 16, 2008
They come in nearly every day, trying to sell him copper wire, old radiators, air conditioner coils, doors, gutters, just about anything made of metal.
In his 68 years buying other people's garbage, Ruben Lenox has never seen so many charlatans walk into his Dorchester junkyard - the kind of people who have stolen city manhole covers, ransacked religious buildings and foreclosed homes for copper pipes, and as recently as last month robbed a Salem fraternal organization of its 1,400-pound steel wheelchair lift, during a daytime funeral.
"You have to do business with people you know," Lenox said.
As the price of scrap metal has rocketed to record levels this summer, Beacon Hill lawmakers are seeking to join the majority of other states in the country that have passed laws to increase regulations on how scrap metal is bought and sold.
But in Massachusetts, where police last week arrested two government employees in the theft of $500,000 worth of decorative cast-iron trim from the Longfellow Bridge, the efforts to hold scrap dealers such as Lenox more accountable have made little progress.
In the past year, state Senator James E. Timilty has pushed a bill that would require scrap dealers and pawnshop brokers to record the name, address, date of birth, photo, and other details about the seller and the items being sold. That information would be sent to an online registry accessible by authorities.
"Stories of thefts are now a weekly occurrence," said Timilty, a Walpole Democrat who serves as cochairman of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. "Something has to be done."
But the bill has failed to attract enough support to pass a full vote in the Legislature because of a combination of budget pressures and industry lobbying. Timilty estimates building and staffing such an online registry would cost the state about $1 million.
That price and bureaucracy the bill would create for proprietors like Lenox seem too much, said state Representative Michael Costello, who is cochairman of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee.
"I have some serious questions about this bill," said Costello, Democrat of Newburyport.
"It may sound good, and it may result in some help in tracking the crimes, but the burden on private business owners might be overwhelming. I'm not sure we need to go that far."
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a Washington-based group that promotes the industry and tracks scrap legislation, said that in the last year, 29 states have passed scrap-related laws.
Delaware, for example, now requires scrap dealers to adhere to State Police record-keeping requirements and hold copper wire for at least a week before sending it to a smelter. In Florida, dealers must review a government-issued identification card for all scrap sales and no longer can accept cash transactions. Hawaii requires scrap dealers to pay sellers of metals by check, sent via mail no sooner than five days after the purchase; Louisiana mandates those selling vehicles as scrap to provide a sworn statement to prove they own the goods; and Minnesota bars scrap dealers from buying beer kegs from anyone other than the manufacturer.
The trade group has encouraged state lawmakers around the country to pass legislation to regulate what it says was a $71 billion industry last year that employed 50,000 people and recycled 15 million metric tons of scrap. With demand for metals rising in developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil, the group said the price of scrap iron and steel rose from $89 a ton in summer 2000 to more than $600 this year.
While the institute supports laws that require scrap dealers to record a seller's driver's license and license plate, group officials said the proposed law in Massachusetts goes too far. They said the bill potentially compromises the private information of sellers, lacks due process provisions for dealers, and puts too much of a burden on mom and pop stores.
"We clearly have a problem with putting confidential information online," said Scott Horne, the institute's general counsel. "And to ask dealers to upgrade their systems to provide this information might be unreasonable."
State lawmakers and law enforcement officials said the online registry would be modeled after a similar program in Rhode Island, which they said has helped solve everything from break-ins to arsons. They said anything less than an online registry of sellers - visible only to police and prosecutors - would be impractical as a means of helping police solve crimes.
Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said the registry would make it much easier for officers who track stolen property.
"At the least, this bill would set uniform standards around the state, and that would be a big help," Sampson said.
"Metal thefts have become a big problem, and the state should be doing more. Law enforcement officials around the state strongly support having an online registry."
Scrap dealers aren't as eager for new regulations.
After helping police find the two men who sold them the iron from the Longfellow Bridge, John Scola, general manager of Minichiello Brothers in Everett, said the arrests show their system works. He said they voluntarily record the license plate of all their clients, but with an average 350 sales a day, they would not have time to record much more.
"When police came, we had all the information they needed," Scola said.
"But they're saying we have to scrutinize everyone who comes in, and take their photos? That would be kind of scaring away the guys we do business with. What they're calling for is too much."
Sitting behind an old desk in his junkyard off Massachusetts Avenue, Lenox said the market would solve the industry's thievery problem.
The 83-year-old owner of Lenox Junk Co. expects thefts to decline as soon as the global economy has soured and the price of scrap iron and steel has plummeted to less than $300 a ton, half its price in May.
"What they're asking for is too much work for a lot of us," he said. "I don't even know how to use a fax machine."
He said it is enough to record a seller's driver's license and turn those away who seem shady.
"You have to know your customers," he said.
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel