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Maryland metal recyclers taking precautions

HAGERSTOWN — Jack Metzner and Bill Wright say they are frustrated that Conservit Inc. is associated in some people’s minds with the ongoing problem of metal thefts. They are aware there are those who say there wouldn’t be a problem with metal thefts if there were no metal recyclers.

The two executives at Conservit bristle at that idea and say they have a process in place to help guard against stolen valuable metal like copper from being taken to the local recycling facility.

Metzner and Wright said they have set aside metals of suspicious origin after being tipped off by police about metal theft cases. The metals are set aside to assist police investigations, Metzner said.

Metzner said workers at the facility could just as easily recycle the material and be done with it.

“We’re caught in the middle. It’s hard being the businessman and the policeman,” said Wright, vice president of operations at the metal recycling facility along Sharpsburg Pike south of Hagerstown.

Tri-State area police said the theft of valuable metals has reached almost “epidemic proportions.” In addition to vacant houses being targets for theft of copper pipe, items ranging from utility manhole covers to central air-conditioning units have been stolen, police said.

Police said four churches in Washington County were targeted in the theft of air-conditioning compressor units.

Matthew Robert Howard, 30, of 7 Snyder Ave., in Hagerstown, was charged in the thefts at Downsville Church of the Brethren and St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, both in Williamsport. Howard was charged with two counts of theft of $1,000 to under $10,000 and malicious destruction of property more than $500 in value, according to Washington County District Court records.

Sgt. Chris Weaver of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office found two “shells” of air-conditioning units at Conservit and an official from St. Andrew Presbyterian Church identified the shells as the ones that came from the church, court records show.

Metzner said Conservit’s first line of defense against stolen materials is a worker who is stationed at the front entrance to the facility. The worker inspects each load of metal that is taken to the facility and works to identify suspicious loads, he said.

In the case of the stolen air-conditioning units from the churches, police notified officials at Conservit about a certain vehicle that might be transporting the units, Metzner said.

The vehicle arrived at Conservit and workers paid an individual for the air-conditioning parts, Metzner said. But instead of recycling the parts, they were separated from other metal and kept at the facility until police could inspect them, Metzner said.

Wright said it is frustrating when Conservit’s name shows up in stories about metal thefts because it makes it look like the company is “hiding it. It’s just the opposite,” Wright said.

Other measures used to guard against stolen metal at Conservit include requiring customers to present their driver’s licenses when bringing in materials.

If stolen materials get past the worker stationed at the entrance, workers in the facility where metal is sorted look for suspicious items, Metzner said. Copper wire recently made it past the front gate and into a building where metal is sorted, Metzner said. Inspectors there noticed that the copper wire was part of welding leads that had been stolen from a contractor, Metzner said.

Local metal recyclers also are now required to record metal purchases in the same database that pawnbrokers are required to use to record purchases when they buy merchandise, Washington County Sheriff Douglas Mullendore said.

Wright acknowledged that metal recyclers are now recording information in that database, although he said there have been some “bugs in the system.”

Despite the measures to guard against metal theft, Mullendore said he is sure that some stolen metal is making its way into metal-recycling operations.

Since Conservit processes about 10,000 tons a month, “you would think” that some stolen metals get processed, Metzner said. But Metzner said he thinks it would be a “very small percentage.”

There are various types of metals that raise suspicions that they might be stolen, Metzner said.

One is railroad scrap such as metal tie plates, spikes and a special type of copper wire referred to as “green wire” because of its green patina, Wright said.

“The railroads have suffered from this problem for a long time,” Wright said.

When railroad scrap is taken to Conservit and the person transporting it is not a railroad contractor, workers require that person to produce an authorization letter, Metzner said.

The letter is from the railroad, verifying that the materials are being scrapped and the person taking them to Conservit has the authority to recycle them, Metzner said.

Conservit workers also will call a railroad company to verify whether the materials are being scrapped, Metzner.

In some cases, the person being asked to bring in an authorization letter never returns, Metzner said.

Wright said Conservit receives loads of railroad scrap about once a month.

Mullendore said an issue that complicates the metal theft problem is that scrap yards in Pennsylvania do not have to record their transactions in the database used by pawnbrokers.

As a result, local metal thieves often taken materials to Pennsylvania, Mullendore said.

“I have personally witnessed trucks going up Interstate 81 loaded with scrap,” Mullendore said.