Sunday, February 3, 2008

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — A dangerous uptick in copper-wiring thefts has Maryland lawmakers considering whether scrap-metal dealers should be required to take names, descriptions and even vehicle tag numbers from people bringing in metal scraps to sell.

Electrical wires, stadium bleachers and bronze urns from cemeteries are turning up missing across Maryland thanks to skyrocketing prices for scrap metal. Copper prices are up about four times over the past five years, and police say they can hardly keep up with the rash of metal thefts.

“This has gotten to be a huge, huge problem,” said Baltimore County police Lt. William Cordwell. Investigators say valuable metal thefts rose 623 percent between 2005 and 2007. In the past year, the department reports more than $630,000 worth of metals have been stripped there.

Several bills pending before the Maryland legislature would aim to reduce copper thefts by requiring scrap dealers to take names, physical descriptions and other identifying information from people selling scrap metal. Some jurisdictions in Maryland, including Baltimore, already require such a registry, but sponsors say a statewide law is needed to cut down on the thefts.

“You name it, they’re attacking everything,” said Delegate Theodore J. Sophocleus, Anne Arundel Democrat. Talking to a House committee considering his registry bill, Mr. Sophocleus cited the July death of a Pasadena man fatally shocked when he tried to steal copper wire from an abandoned store.

“Maybe we can stem not only the injuries but also the many millions of losses,” Mr. Sophocleus said. “This is a problem that’s got to be addressed.”

Mr. Sophocleus’ bill would address only copper sales, but he encouraged lawmakers to add other nonferrous metals such as platinum or aluminum that can be ripped from catalytic converters or construction sites, even empty kegs of beer.

“I don’t think my bill goes far enough,” he said.

Even scrap dealers testified the state should join 21 other states in requiring a scrap-metal registry.

“We have no interest at all in being part of a supply chain that involves stolen materials,” said Ed Johnson, co-owner of Atlantic Recycling Group, which buys scrap metal at two Maryland locations. Mr. Johnson said after the hearing that while some pieces can be turned away because they have obviously been stolen — such as manhole covers or cemetery fixtures — many more can’t be differentiated.

“You can’t tell one piece from the other, but you can tell the sellers apart,” said Mr. Johnson, who argued that the law would dissuade many from stealing metal because they couldn’t sell it without signing a registry.

Lawmakers did not vote on the measure, but they seemed amenable to the idea of requiring a statewide scrap-metal registry.

“We have had entire graveyards desecrated for the brass, and it brings so much pain to people,” said Delegate Sally Y. Jameson, Charles Democrat.

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