Scrap value: Local recyclers tighten rules to thwart thieves

NORWALK Leave metal in an unsecured location in Ohio and -- presto -- it often disappears.
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010

NORWALK

Leave metal in an unsecured location in Ohio and -- presto -- it often disappears.

It's not magic, it's theft -- and it's a problem state officials hope to curb with a new law that took effect Thursday.

In response to the statewide epidemic of metal theft, Ohio passed a law that requires scrapyards to take down the personal information of sellers.

"From today forward, if you take anything in for money, for profit, to a recycling entity, you have to have picture ID, and they have to record that information," said Pam Hansberger, recycling coordinator for the Huron County Solid Waste Management District.

The new law doesn't change Huron County's policy because the transfer station only accepts metal as donations. But many scrap yards throughout the state are being forced into logging their clients' information for the first time.

The change comes as no shock to managers at Keefer Metal Recycling in Norwalk. The business has had a similar policy in place for more than a year.

Months after the recycling center opened for business two years ago, manager Jeff Keefer said he saw how much theft was involved in exchanging metal for cash, so the yard's business practices were modified to ask for proof of identity.

"We sometimes detain them and call the sheriff. That don't take long for the news to travel that way," Keefer said. "They know not to come here. ... The sheriff keeps in good contact and lets us know what's missing."

Without naming names, Keefer said there are other scrapyards in central Ohio that aren't so scrupulous. He said the lure of the money leads them to accept hot metal.

About three months ago, steel was selling at 14 cents a pound, Keefer said. Compare that to today's value -- about 4 cents a pound -- and it is easy to see why thieves were pinching anything steel-based they could get their hands on.

"When it was up to 14 cents, you couldn't leave your push mower outside," he said. "Three months ago, nothing was safe in your backyard. Anything that was 100 pounds -- that was $14 to them."

Metal thievery sometimes carries a price greater than just personal loss.

Sometimes thieves chop down stop signs, cart off guard rails and swipe cast iron manhole covers.

"If you steal a stop sign, you could be stealing somebody's life," Hansberger said.

Even though Huron County assistant engineer Carl Essex said his department does not have manhole covers to worry about, the county does have a problem with signs staying put.

About $25,000 worth of highway signs go missing each year, he said.

While most of these signs end up on the walls of county residents -- the sign at Lover's Lane Road in Norwalk, for instance, has a lifespan of about one month -- Essex said a small portion of the signs may be recycled for money.

Signs are not the only items disappearing in this area.

At Patten-Tract Road, just north of Monroeville, a pair of Bellevue males were arrested on charges of stealing railroad track.

Joshua Hensinger, 25, 300 block of Kinney St., Bellevue, and a 17-year-old accomplice were seen by passing motorists acting in a suspicious manner on the railroad track, according to the Erie County Sheriff's Office. Authorities were contacted and arrests were made.

"They were charged with criminal trespassing and theft," Capt. Paul Sigsworth said.

Scrap metal can often look like gold to a thief. Residents would be wise not to forget to protect their belongings and report suspicious behavior, Sigsworth said.

Catalytic converter tops are another popular target.

"They'll just go into a parking lot, use a battery-operated saw, and crawl underneath the car and cut the catalytic converter off the car," Sigsworth said. "Then a person comes out and finds their whole exhaust system destroyed."

The pilfering hit a new low last year when thieves stole a wheelbarrow full of bronze date plates and more than 200 brass and copper urns from Meadow Green Cemetery in Huron.

Except in cases of teenage vandalism, money is the motivation of these crimes. Money buys drugs, and many thieves are addicts desperate for their next fix, Sigsworth said.

Even though metal thievery is a problem everywhere, the extent of the problem differs from community to community.

Unlike Huron County, Erie County Engineer Jack Farschman said he didn't know of any signs being stolen in his county.

"It's a rare occasion that it happens -- not that it never happens," he said.