Lawmakers Look to Another Law in Bid to Curb Copper Theft

February 27, 2012

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Copper PipesPoll some of the parties involved in an effort to thwart the theft and illegal sale of copper, and you’ll get mixed reviews regarding the latest legislative bill aimed at curbing the underground business.

“This is really nothing more than feel-good legislation,” said lobbyist Ken Kinard of S. 732, which is designed to add teeth to anti-copper theft laws passed over the past five years, including H. 3660 last year. “Every time you do something like this, the bad guys find a way to get around it.

“I think a lot of what actually slows copper theft is copper prices dropping,” added Kinard, who works for the South Carolina Recyclers Association and has represented the scrap metal industry since the early 1990s.

Jeff Moore, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association, said last year’s legislation, which went into effect in August, has already had an impact.

“There’s been a reduction in copper theft, particularly among rural churches,” he said. “We’ve gone from 14 to 16 thefts a month at rural churches a year ago to just two this past January.”

Fencing copper has become a big black-market business. The malleable metal is selling for around $3.80 a pound on the London Metal Exchange, down from approximately $4.50 a pound a year ago; and scrap yards are paying about $3 a pound for copper.

While there may be debate about the need for more regulation and what impact it will have on legitimate businesses, there’s no question the General Assembly is taking a hardline approach to the theft of nonferrous metals, mainly copper. Consider some provisions in the latest bill:

  • It would increase penalties for individuals found guilty of stealing nonferrous metals, which include steel and aluminum as well as copper, to as much as 10 years imprisonment;
  • It would further restrict who can buy and sell nonferrous metals;
  • It would prevent metals recyclers from paying cash to individuals selling copper for amounts of more than $50; and
  • It would prevent individuals from transporting more than 10 pounds of nonferrous metal in their vehicle without a bill of sale from an individual or business authorized to engage in the sale of such metals, or for those unable to provide a valid transportation permit or permit number from the sheriff of the county in which they reside.

The bill has solid support, with 22 sponsors evenly split among Republicans and Democrats. Sponsors include Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston; minority leader John Land, D-Clarendon; Tom Davis-R-Beaufort; and Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.

Supporters claim S. 732 would strengthen the law passed last year. That legislation built on bills passed in 2007 and 2009.

As a result of last year’s law, scrap metal dealers must obtain a permit to legally sell or buy copper, aluminum and catalytic converters, although it excluded aluminum cans.

The measure also made it illegal to transport nonferrous metals without a permit. In addition, metal recyclers were required to make a copy of sellers’ permits, and record information such as the seller’s photograph, license plate number, the date of the transaction and amount paid.

While Moore says the new law has had a positive impact, he says it’s also resulted in more work for enforcement officials responsible for handling the permitting of recyclers and those that sell nonferrous metals.

“There’s been a tremendous workload increase for the sheriffs’ departments around the state as a result of this,” he said. “We’ve probably issued between 100,000 and 125,000 permits around the state, and most of the larger sheriffs’ offices have had to dedicate personnel to handling the permitting process.”

The new bill would also make it more difficult for individuals who come from out of state to sell nonferrous metal to recyclers.

Under the current law, an individual selling copper or other nonferrous metals has to get a permit from the South Carolina county in which they reside. But individuals from out of state aren’t required to comply with that regulation.

“Under the new bill you would have to register with every county you do business in,” Moore said. “If you want to drive through 46 counties in the state to do business, you’ll need to buy 46 permits.”

Permits cost $200 apiece and are good for two years, he said.

The permitting process as it’s set up now isn’t a big hit with Kinard.

“It’s things like if you or I want to go sell some copper we’ve got to go get a permit that can be a problem,” he said. “The average guy cleaning out his garage may come across some old copper he wants to sell, but he may figure he doesn’t have the time to go down and get a permit.”

Not being able to pay cash for used copper – no matter how small the amount – was also a sticking point with recyclers, Kinard said.

“An issue was that some of the big Baptist churches (wanted) to ban cash payments for copper,” he said. “They claim that by paying cash we’re attracting all the crackheads. My guys contend that today if you write a check, people will take it down to a check-cashing place and get their money just about as quickly.”

The copper coils in air conditioning units at rural churches are easy targets for criminals because of the remote locations of the structures and the fact that the units are often on the backside of the churches, making it even harder to detect crimes in progress.

Moore said he understands recyclers’ frustrations with having to write checks for a couple of dollars or less, rather than being able to pay out the amount in cash.

A Senate Judiciary Committee last week recommended that the bill be amended to allow cash payments for nonferrous metals for amounts up to $50.

At least one metal recycler said he’s been less than impressed with legislative efforts to curb metal theft.

“The new law made it so you had to have a permit, so the thieves went and got permits,” said Andy Ackerman, owner of Eight Acres Recycling in Prosperity. “The fact is there’s not enough room in the jails, so the criminals end up being turned back out onto the street and they start back at it again.”

Ackerman says the best deterrent in his industry is for recyclers to work closely with law enforcement and to advertise that they do.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.