PHILADELPHIA – At the E.F. Sullivan & Son scrap shop in Philadelphia’s Port Richmond neighborhood, manager Rick Walton recently turned away a customer who wanted to sell a particular brass object: a funeral urn.

The man said there were more where that came from.

“I said, ‘Yeah, but you have to dump the ashes,'” Walton said in an interview. “They’re stealing everything they can get their hands on.”

These days, it seems even the dead – or at least their containers – aren’t safe. Soaring metal prices have made it hard on the living, too.

On the post-industrial streets of Port Richmond, it can seem as if nothing made of metal stays put. Car batteries, cables, extension cords, gutters, manhole covers and even flagpoles have been stolen as thieves try to cash in.

Building contractors say they’ve had aluminum windows and door frames taken right off their trucks.

In fact, scrap dealers say they can be victims themselves – of crooks who steal scrap from scrapyards. Some yards are putting up razor-wire fences, installing motion detectors and even hiring security guards.

Officials think many perpetrators are addicts or street people, desperate to get a few bucks or fund their next high. But part of the explanation for what’s happening in places like Port Richmond can be found halfway around the world in countries such as China and India. The weakening dollar makes scrap less expensive and more attractive to foreign buyers. Developing nations are importing huge amounts of metal for new buildings and to make the cars, washers and refrigerators desired by rising classes of consumers.

In the United States, the price of scrap iron has nearly doubled in six months. The category of scrap that includes municipal sewer grates – a prime target for thieves – sells for $500 to $530 a ton, up from $300 to $330. Five years ago, the price was $125.

“They’re higher than they’ve ever been by an order of magnitude we’ve never seen,” said Chuck Carr, a vice president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc., a Washington-based trade association. “We all thought this was going to be like every other time we’ve been in a high-price cycle – it would last for a few months and go away. But it hasn’t gone away.”

Carr has been tracking theft issues since 2006, when more communities began reporting metal crime waves.

Local scrapyard owners say they field calls every day from police investigators, building contractors, city officials, cable-company executives and even people who live around the corner, all of them looking for missing property.

Recently, a Port Richmond man came to E. F. Sullivan & Son to ask if anyone had seen his flagpole.

“He said, ‘All I want back is my flag. It was my grandfather’s,’ ” recalled Ramone Lopez, an employee.

Another man comes in regularly, not to search but to sell: He empties pocketfuls of brass bearings, which earn him $8 or $9. “He wants whatever he can get,” said Walton, the manager.

Another guy used every available dollar on his Lowe’s credit card to buy copper, then sold it to Walton so he could get cash for his rent.

“He’s still got to pay the bill for Lowe’s, but he can’t get cash from a Lowe’s card,” Walton said. “That’s how bad it’s getting.”

The city Water Department has begun bolting chains onto the 40-pound iron plates that fit onto curbside storm drains. The worry isn’t just the replacement cost. It’s the hazard.

In February, the firm that operates the city’s underground steam system agreed to pay $18 million to a former college student who suffered a broken back when he plunged into an open manhole in 2004. Minutes before Marcus Gustafsson fell into the hole, a homeless man had pried off the cover.

Several scrapyard dealers interviewed for this story said they wanted nothing to do with stolen material. It’s not worth risking a business license, said Stephen Deacon, who manages Rhino Recycling.

“We made between $10 million and $20 million last year. It’s not worth it for $1,000 of iron,” he said.

Each day, the massive operation handles 400 to 500 delivery trucks that leave behind a towering pile of metal.

Deacon said he called the police last summer when a man brought in dozens of manhole covers and tried to sell them. And he called Home Depot when someone tried to sell bright orange iron merchandise racks that looked like they came from a store. Recently he put aside a fire hydrant and a traffic sign – it said, “Road Work 500 Feet” – for reclamation by water and highway officials.

But dealers say that as they dig through the wires, motors and appliances, it’s hard to discern what might be stolen. Some items have no markings. Others have been cut or bent, no longer recognizable.

“You couldn’t tell,” Deacon said. “No one could tell.”

Of course, private citizens tend not to own manhole covers. But items like that can be hidden in larger loads. And many goods don’t need to be hidden to be sold: If someone comes to a dealer with an old brass bed and a story, did it really belong to his grandfather, or was it stolen from somebody’s house?

At Penn Treaty Metal Co. in Fishtown, where workers were hoisting a silver-colored duct off a truck, manager Glenn Preno said he hasn’t had people try to sell him manhole covers or pass off new materials as scrap.

That, he said, is because he limits his clientele to a particular group of sellers: “Only people I know.”


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