Copper illustration
A new law seeks to make it more difficult for crooks to make a quick buck by stealing copper. Local recycler Joe Rich says it’s also going to make it harder for legitimate folks to sell their scrap metal. CHRISTOPHER HUFF/T&D

A new law seeks to make it harder for crooks to sell copper, and lawmakers hope that leads to less metal theft.

"Basically everyone - churches, the insurance companies and law enforcement - favored it," Rep. Harry Ott said. "It eliminates cash sales for copper and forces sellers to register with the sheriff's department.

"That will give them tools to determine who is legitimately selling copper. Hopefully this will allow us to keep air conditioners running this summer and not turn them into scrap metal."

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed Ott's bill into law Friday. The new law, which takes effect in 60 days, enjoyed bipartisan support among legislators.

The measure requires sellers of 10 pounds or more of nonferrous metals to obtain a yearly permit from their county sheriff's department. A compromise allows homeowners to obtain 48-hour permits by phone twice a year.

The law's definition of nonferrous metals includes items not containing significant quantities of iron or steel, including copper, catalytic converters and stainless steel beer kegs.

The law requires recyclers to pay for copper with a check. Supporters say the requirement will stop drug users from stealing copper and selling it for quick cash.

Calhoun County Sheriff Thomas Summers said the law isn't a silver bullet.

"I don't know if it will be enough but it will be a help," Summers said. "Anything at all will be a help. If this makes it harder to sell copper, it will be a useful deterrent.

"If these people that are stealing copper don't have a means to get rid of it, they will stop stealing it."

One of the people Ott consulted when he was developing the law was Carolina Fresh Farms owner John Fogle. He estimates thieves have stolen around $30,000 in copper tubing from irrigation systems at the Neeses operation.

Also, "the air conditioning system at our church was raided," Fogle said. "It cost more because the insurance deductible went up. It went up on our irrigation system, too."

Fogle believes the new law will stem some of the thefts, but the thieves eventually will figure a way around the law.

He also thinks an ultraviolet paint-based marker introduced by Sunshine Recycling will help. Owners can use it to mark items such as air conditioning coils, alerting buyers the metal may be stolen.

Sunshine Recycling owner Joseph Rich has reservations about the new law. He said the staffing burden involved in requiring county sheriffs to issue permits is only the tip of the iceberg.

"A lot of people will be surprised by this law," Rich said. "It makes it unlawful to transport more than 10 pounds of nonferrous metal unless it's in a vehicle used in the business of transporting it. If the individual doesn't have a permit, he has to have a receipt.

"That means anyone carrying an aluminum ladder in their vehicle, or even jumper cables, could potentially be in violation. The scary part is a provision that leaves it up to an officer's discretion to determine if it's not stolen and in the rightful possession of the person."

Rich says his company refuses to buy metal if the seller does not satisfy its verification criteria. He claims the law will lead recyclers to purchase metal from all permitted sellers, even if they feel the metal has been stolen.

"We don't even buy beer kegs because the beer industry has asked us not to," Rich said. "However, the law allows beer kegs to be purchased.

"I don't feel the recycling industry has been sufficiently involved in this process. That's why the law is so broad."

Even so, "in defense of the legislature, it is grappling with options to stifle the problem, and it's trying. I just don't think a blanket law has ever been a solution."

Contact the writer: psarata@timesand democrat.com or 803-533-5540.

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