In their frenzy for metal to sell for cash, often to feed a drug habit, thieves will steal the gutters and downspouts from your house, markers from the cemetery, even guardrails from the side of the road.
They bedevil utility companies and contractors, taking thousands of dollars worth of copper wire and other materials from electrical substations and construction sites.
Metal thieves have made off with copper plumbing from homes being built or in foreclosure in virtually every city and town we cover in the Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire.
Heedless of the danger they create for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians, they’ve lifted manhole covers and sewer grates from road projects in Haverhill and Methuen and suburban neighborhoods in the Andovers.
Heartless and uncaring about their victims, they even stole the aluminum handicapped access ramp of a Haverhill woman who used it to maneuver her wheelchair into and out of her home.
Last week, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a bill filed by state Rep. John Keenan and state Sen. Joan Lovely, both of Salem, Mass., that would increase penalties for defacing historic homes by stealing the copper gutters, wiring and other valuable parts. In addition to paying fines of $100 to $1,000 and possibly serving prison terms, thieves would be required to make full restitution to homeowners.
It’s a bill of particular interest in Essex County, with its treasure trove of historic houses, and inspired in part by the experiences of Salem resident Neil Chayet, whose lovingly restored historic home was robbed of its gutters, not once but twice.
Thefts of manhole covers and similar items would be dealt with under a different bill, originally filed by Danvers state Rep. Ted Speliotis, that would make it illegal for scrap-metal dealers to accept items that honest citizens could not be expected to come by legally — manhole covers, historic markers, bleachers from athletic fields, traffic signs and the like. Among its other provisions, the bill would require metal dealers to keep the kinds of detailed records now mandated for pawn shops.
This bill seemed on track to become law after it was first filed in 2011, but it never made it through the entire legislative process. It was refiled in January. State Sen. Barry Finegold of Andover is a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill.
In New Hampshire, Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a bill this session that will create a special commission to study the current community-based system of commodities reporting by junk or scrap metal dealers in the Granite State and consider whether to establish a statewide data base to help investigate and deter metal theft. The commission will also take a look at statistics on metal theft incidents and arrests in New Hampshire and how other states are combating the crime.
Congress, meanwhile, is considering legislation that would make it a federal crime to steal metals being used in interstate commerce, the theft of which harms critical infrastructure, such as electrical substations, power lines and cellular towers. The thieves could be sent to prison for up to 10 years.
The federal legislation would also require buyers of such metal to obtain proof of ownership or similar documentation from sellers or face a $10,000 civil fine for each violation.
The problem of metal thefts is not the biggest issue we face, but it’s a serious one, and it’s time to do something about it.