September 2005

Wayne County, Michigan fights metal scavengers
The county says new ordinances would keep people from foraging for valuable scrap
by Joel Kurth E-mail the author

The copper pipe parade usually begins about 9 a.m. near Roger Skrzynski’s auto salvage yard in southwest Detroit.

Bedraggled men pulling shopping carts and baby strollers loaded with wires, pipes and aluminum — some perhaps swiped from Skrzynski’s yard — make the trek. It’s done in broad daylight, with little fear of repercussions.

“We watch these guys every single day and just shake our heads,” said Skrzynski, 40, owner of Central Avenue Auto Parts.

An impediment to urban redevelopment and a suburban nuisance, scrap metal scavenging is escalating in southeast Michigan. Fueled by a bad economy, a robust drug trade and a soaring market for light metals such as aluminum, thieves are plundering everything from radiators and wheels to grave markers and window frames for quick cash.

It’s a problem that extends beyond Detroit’s industrial core. In recent months, hustlers have raided a Novi cemetery for brass markers, driven off scrap trucks from locked yards in Plymouth and Livonia and finished swiping every bit of copper from the once-glistening roof of a defunct Hannan Branch of the YMCA on East Jefferson in Detroit.

Fed up, Wayne County may soon crack down. Commissioners are eying an ordinance that would require junkyards to be licensed by the county and subject to regular inspections. The ordinance also would make it a misdemeanor to sell “materials removed from municipal utilities and sites,” such as manhole covers and street lights.

Stealing is already illegal, so some wonder whether another ordinance would work. But it could be welcome to those in Detroit’s Delray neighborhood who awoke in May to find several manhole covers and sewer grates missing on a stretch of West Jefferson.

It would be less welcome to Gerald Alexander, who said he’s one of about 100 men who scour a section of southwest Detroit for loose wires and metal fixtures.

“The majority of it is (stolen), but times are tough,” said Alexander, as he pulled a makeshift wagon made from the underbelly of a shopping cart, a plastic bucket, wires and shopping bags.

Alexander said he spends several hours daily searching for metals he sells to three dealers near Skrzynski’s yard. A bucket of wires can fetch $3 or $4.

A catalytic converter is better than gold. The car part that cuts emissions contains platinum, and Alexander said scrap dealers pay $45 for it.

“It’s not stealing. People just don’t know what they’ve got,” said Alexander, adding he makes about $30 a day from discarded metals he retrieves from the trash.

Skrzynski knows exactly what he’s got. Thieves still break into his auto junkyard about three times a week, cutting holes in his fence and using crowbars to pry open hoods and steal aluminum radiators from the 2,000 cars on his 20-acre lot.

The heist’s payoff: $4 a radiator.

“I wish I could pay my employees that little money for that amount of work,” Skrzynski laughed. “It’s not funny. I sell those radiators for $45 and up.”

Economy drives market
Scavenging may be an underground industry, but like all others, it ebbs and flows with the economy, said Michael Marley, an editor at American Metal Market, a New York trade magazine.

When prices for scrap steel soared to nearly $300 a ton last year from $100 in 2002, manhole covers and fences were the rage. Lately, scrap steel values fell to about $140 a ton, but copper prices doubled to about 80 cents a pound in the last year, Marley said.

State records show Wayne County has at least a dozen scrap yards, which buy everything from brass to zinc. The yards collect the scrap, then sell it to smelters that melt it down into new metals that are used to make autos and other products.

“(Scavenging) is always going to be a problem in cities like Detroit and Baltimore with a lot of vacant houses,” Marley said. “Slick operators come in and rip out all the copper pipes. It’s easy. You go into the bathroom, disconnect the pipe and pull down the whole run.”

Monitoring activities at scrap yards is difficult, Marley said. Most scrap doesn’t come with proof of ownership, and it can be tough for yard operators to tell if the person coming in with a bucket of pipes is a thief or a pack-rat plumber, he said.

“There are disreputable guys in my line of work, no doubt,” said Hugh Goldsmith, owner of Haggerty Metals in Plymouth.

In June, thieves tried to sell Goldsmith about 40 plaques from a Novi cemetery. The markers, which weighed 1,700 pounds, could have fetched about $900.

Other yards may not have asked questions. Goldsmith phoned the police, who returned the markers to the cemetery.

Later that month, Goldsmith’s yard was burglarized and a truck stolen — a scenario repeated last month at a Livonia yard, he said.

Tougher rules needed
County Commissioner Ilona Varga, D-Detroit, said tougher rules could cut down on such thefts. A resident of Delray, Varga proposed the ordinance after thieves absconded with several manhole covers.

“These junkyards ask no questions,” Varga said. “Thieves are eating our money, and no one is doing anything about it. To a junkie, $10 for a manhole cover is a (drug) fix.”

Others are skeptical that a new regulation could curb demand for black-market metals.

“People know there’s not going to be any enforcement behind a new law,” said James Turner, owner of Turner Restoration in Detroit.

A window and door restorer, Turner estimated two in 10 abandoned homes in Detroit are hit by scavengers. The pilfering impedes Detroit’s efforts to restore old homes, he said.

“Most people put $20,000 to $50,000 to restore a house,” Turner said. “Are you still going to make the investment if you have to spend another $9,000 to replace siding?”

—Reprinted with permission from the Detroit News

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