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EDITORIAL: Scrap-metal dilemma

Published:Saturday | January 16, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Scrap-metal theft ought to be treated as a public-safety issue. In a country facing staggering criminal activities such as ours, it is easy to ignore a non-violent crime like metal theft and call it a misdemeanour. However, the activities of scrap-metal thieves often endanger the lives of the public. Removing manhole covers and dismantling guard rails are among the actions that place members of the public at risk. It also means that the overburdened taxpayer must pay a hefty price for replacing these items. Recognising the magnitude of the problem, Commerce Minister Karl Samuda suspended the export trade in scrap metal and tried to put some order into the business.

limited success

But even with the introduction of new legislation requiring registration and establishing more stringent finds for breaches of the regulations, the efforts to combat the growing metal-theft epidemic have met with limited success.

Utility companies have been consistently targeted. Utilities are a critical and expensive infrastructure and when these companies suffer loss of cables and wires, the thieves often leave in their trail damage to other equipment. Costly repairs and new security measures are eventually passed on to the consumer.

one outlet

There is only one outlet for scrap metal and that is the scrap-metal export trade. Reports say roughly 100 scrap-metal dealers are duly registered with the authorities. When someone turns up with a spool of electrical cable, is he asked to provide evidence of how he came in possession of this material? And what of the 72-hour notice required by the police to check on scrap-metal shipments?

The trade was restarted after operators promised to do a better job of monitoring vendors and working closer with the police to report suspicious transactions. Now, reports have surfaced of another upsurge in metal theft, moving from utility companies to the sugar industry, as the metal thieves become bolder and more inventive.

Industrial expansion in India and a construction boom in China have elevated demand for metals in the last decade. And the global problem of metal theft has soared right alongside higher prices and greater demand. Two years ago, a nationwide task force was established in England to clamp down on metal which was being stolen and sold as scrap, and this initiative included offering cash incentives for tips. In other countries, new legislation calls for photo identification of scrap-metal peddlers and the use of CCTV at metal yards. And only recently in Portland, Oregon, scrap-metal buyers were ordered to wait three business days after purchase before mailing a non-transferable cheque to the seller's address. All of the above have had some measure of success.

Mr Samuda has threatened to halt the trade if the problem persists. It is sad to see people being put out of work and this would certainly be the result. We believe scrap-metal theft is a crime that can be deterred through community action and added pressure on scrap-metal dealers. If the police are really interested in putting a dent in this illicit and dangerous trade, they can find creative ways to deal with the culprits.

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