As modern-day pirates and subterranean thieves with electrical expertise drive San Francisco’s illegal metal trade, The City is moving to crack down with new regulations for both suppliers and buyers of the pilfered loot.
The price of copper peaked last summer, when metal bandits made up to $4 per pound after ravaging underground utility infrastructure, knocking out power and costing more than $20,000 in repairs on at least one occasion.
Yet police have taken notice and attacked the problem from all sides, warning metal buyers not to purchase certain well-known forms of copper, and even conducting sneaky night raids on unsuspecting waterborne scavengers trolling the edges of the Bay at the shuttered Hunters Point shipyard and other industrial sites.
The plunderers had learned that law enforcement boats were too big to pass under certain bridges at high tide.
And even if authorities did manage to catch up with them, they would just throw their booty overboard.
“We had pursuits,” said Officer Sue Laden, who helped coordinate the response to the metal theft. “They’d do it in the day, or at night, when the Coast Guard couldn’t see them. They got really smart at that.”
But in February, a nighttime sting operation proved successful when officers observed a break-in and quickly moved between the boat and the theft suspects.
Officers from the Bayview Police Station also distributed fliers to the neighborhood’s four junk dealers and asked them not to purchase copper wire of the type used only by PG&E. Then undercover officers attempted to sell the same four dealers PG&E wire. Two of the four took the bait, police said.
Now The City is moving to end the rigmarole by keeping more detailed tabs on the metal trade.
Junk dealers, like junk gatherers, currently need permits to do business, although neither group is easy to regulate, Laden said. Junk dealers don’t face permit renewals, and if they are caught in the act of buying illegal material, there is a long appeals process that allows them to keep operating during months, if not years, of proceedings. And many junk gatherers simply don’t seek the permits, although dealers are required to check their identification and ask them if items were legally obtained.
The loose oversight prompted Supervisor Malia Cohen, whose district covers the Bayview, to draft legislation that would require dealers to renew permits annually with police, who would then have greater scrutiny to disapprove of bad actors.
“Brazen metal theft must stop,” Cohen said. “The lack of regulation of this industry is a direct incentive for violent and destructive criminal behavior.”
Cohen’s proposed legislation, introduced last week, also would fold gatherers into the same permitting system, which would let only licensed sellers and their employees deal in scrap. Companies with a valid contractor’s license would be exempt from the permits.
The regulations, in their current form, do not include controls on low-level recycling-bin pickers who have plagued The City’s garbage collector, Recology, to the tune of $5 million annually.