Put moratorium on metal recycling

WHEN is recycling not a good thing?

Answer: When it is a crime.

Lately, too much recycling activity is against the law.

I’m talking about the rash of copper wire thefts that have left ballfields, streets, parks, schools and even churches in the dark.

Just recently, someone stole a 62-year-old brass bell from a church in Pico Rivera worth $5,000. In February, a transient caused $18,000 in damage to Pompei Memorial Sports Park in Glendora by stealing the wire from the light poles. The Hacienda La Puente Unified School District reported copper wire thefts from five schools from November 2011 to January. Each theft cost the district between $5,000 and $15,000. South Pasadena said someone was stripping the wire boxes beneath its stop lights of copper wires. In December 2007, a thief stole 85 bronze markers off graves at Rose Hills Memorial Park and tried to cash them in. I could go on and on.

I blame the metal recycling industry. Too many scrap-metal dealers are doling out cash to thieves who are junkies and gang members who cash in these precious metals at recycling centers, which turn around and ship the load to China.

A 2008 law requiring these phony recyclers to show a driver’s license isn’t working. As we all know, these can be forged. The law also prohibits cash payments but the thieves found a loophole by redeeming the metal in less than $20 increments. Smaller amounts were not covered by the law.

In the last

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four years, the crimes only increased along with the price of metal on the commodities market. Law enforcement can’t keep up with the crime wave. Financially strapped cities and schools are paying through the nose.
Last week, the Legislature passed two new laws restricting metal recycling. One prohibits a so-called recycler from getting cash for a fire hydrant, manhole cover or backflow device. Gee, did we really need a law for these scrap-metal dealers to realize that those items were ripped off?

What’s the conversation that goes on. “Is that your fire hydrant? Really, you make ‘em? Oh, OK. I’ll give you a hundred bucks for it.”

A second bill, by Assemblywoman Wilmer Carter, R-Rialto, and now on the governor’s desk, would prohibit those $20 cash payments.

These seem like afterthoughts and Band-Aids. It is like fighting Hitler’s army with pop guns.

What the Legislature didn’t do was pass the best bill. That one was by Assemblywoman Norma Torres, D-Chino. Her bill would have required scrap metal dealers to pay by check and the dealers would have to mail the check to the “recycler’s” home address. Have a P.O. box? That wouldn’t be acceptable, explained Francisco Estrada, chief aide to Torres. A check would assist law enforcement in catching the thief, if the metal was proved stolen.

After the Assembly adopted the bill by a 73-1 vote, Torres expected it to make it through the Senate. But it was derailed by a 4-4 vote in the Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee.

Local Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, was one of the surprising “no” votes.

“It was a real simple change in the law,” Estrada explained. “If we would’ve gotten it to the floor of the Senate we would’ve been successful.”

The metal recycling lobby can be a powerful force. So powerful that such attempts at slowing down this lucrative but illicit trade have been weak at best. Torres’s bill was supported by local law enforcement and school districts, eager for the Legislature to do something.

It’s a problem that the environmental community has been silent on. Why haven’t they spoken up? Recycling is getting a black eye and yet, they remain mute.

I’m proposing a moratorium on all metal recycling until the Legislature and the recycling industry takes this crime seriously.

Let’s stop the boats to China until our house is in order. Cutting the money changing is the only way to get the attention of the metal recycling business.

Now, who will have the guts to get this done?

Steve Scauzillo covers the environment and transportation. He’s the current recipient of the Aldo Leopold Award for Distinguished Editorial Writing from The Wilderness Society. Follow him on Twitter @stevscaz/twitter.com or email him at steve.scauzillo@gmail.com.