Capital Scrap Metal is a dirty place. Sooty and grease-caked, the Santa Fe scrapyard looks like a setting for Mad Max, where archaeological ruins are made from appliances, cans and wires.
More recently, Capital also resembles a traffic jam, due to the long lines of scrap metal-laden trucks lumbering down the street.
The reason: China. The country’s demand for steel and other metals, ostensibly used to fund growing industry there, has sent costs skyward. Steel that Capital and other scrapyards once bought for as little as 3 cents per pound has doubled in price.
This surge also has led to a national increase in metal theft-related crimes. In Ohio, thieves have made off with air conditioner units. Metal robbers have taken bronze pots from the bases of gravestones in Florida. According to a May Newsweek article, Philadelphia has seen 600 manhole covers stolen in the last year.
Closer to home, the Santa Fe Police Department has had eight reports of copper theft so far in 2008, including repeated thefts of copper wiring at St. Catherine Indian School. “We’ve had huge problems there this year,” Deputy Chief Eric Wheeler tells SFR. Much of the theft, he believes, has to do with methamphetamine users trying to feed their addiction.
Enter State Sen. Phil Griego, D-Mora. In the 2008 regular legislative session, Griego sponsored Senate Bill 281, the Sale of Recycled Metals Act, to make it tougher for metal thieves to do business with scrap dealers, while also holding businessmen like Rob Witt, who runs Capital Scrap Metal, more accountable for the scrap they buy. The bill was approved and the law goes into effect in January.
Under the new law, scrap sellers must sign a legal document at the scrap yard, saying they are authorized to sell their metal, and they must present photo identification. The dealer is now required to write down what was bought and sold, as well as the seller’s license plate number.
Witt has no problem with much of the legislation’s wording, or the idea of making the law tougher. But one stipulation does give him pause.
The law states that dealers must wait five days until purchasing scrap from individuals, so that police have an opportunity to stop by to see whether the metal has been stolen. That, Witt says, creates a nightmare for dealers.
“I’m doing hundreds of tons per month,” Witt tells SFR. “I’ve got to have this all identified in different little piles. The idea [behind the legislation], I have no problem with. But we’ve got semis full of iron every day, and for us to separate it, I’d have to have a yard 10 times the size of this.”
Witt has been in this business for 30 years. His career started modestly, when he decided to clean up his back yard and sell scrap metal for cash.
Griego, who says he did not consult scrap dealers prior to introducing this bill, says he got involved after industry officials complained to him that not enough was being done to enforce the law. He says the legislation is too weak; his original bill made violators subject to felony charges, but the state judiciary downgraded it to a misdemeanor.
“Right now, the law has no teeth,” Griego says. “We’ve got to put some teeth into this thing.”
Witt disagrees, saying if the opportunity arises, he would join a lawsuit with other scrap dealers to try and change the law.
“Griego didn’t speak to nobody,” Witt says as five customers walk in the door. “We weren’t privy to know anything about this. The Legislature…has gone a little extreme.”