Wayne County, Michigan fights metal scavengers
The county says new ordinances would keep people
from foraging for valuable scrap
by Joel Kurth
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
“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
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,
“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