September 28, 2013

Legislation Aims to Fight Metal Theft

Copper wiring stripped from irrigation pumps, disappearing brass fixtures, stolen steel pipes—for farmers and ranchers, the chronic theft of metals continues to be a costly problem with no end in sight, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.

In an effort to tighten regulations and make the resale of stolen metal more difficult, farm groups and law enforcement organizations supported two bills passed by the state Legislature before its adjournment earlier this month. One bill would aid law enforcement in fighting this crime; the other would clamp down on illegal recyclers that buy stolen metal.

Supporters have been encouraging Gov. Brown to sign the measures.

"We have worked for a number of years on metal theft and despite our efforts, there are still really high rates, so we are trying to focus on giving law enforcement more resources so they can address the problem," said Noelle Cremers, California Farm Bureau Federation director of natural resources and commodities. "There are stringent laws on the books to prevent metal theft and this will help provide resources to make sure that those laws are enforced."

It is no secret that California farmers, ranchers, water districts, government agencies, businesses and individuals have spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to replace stolen metal.

Nic Marchini, a diversified farmer in Merced County whose crops include radicchio and almonds, said he has been hit repeatedly by metal thieves who have vandalized his irrigation pumps.

"Metal theft has gotten worse over the last year," Marchini said. "The most common metal that they are taking is copper from the irrigation pumps. That seems to be the metal of choice for now. We've probably had copper ripped off from over 30 wells multiple times in the last 12 months, equating to over $40,000 in damage, at least."

Typically, he said, when the copper has been stripped from his pumps, his neighbors have been hit too. "They hit an area real hard and then move on," Marchini said.

To combat metal theft on a larger scale, Farm Bureau sponsored Assembly Bill 909 by Assemblymember Adam Gray, D-Merced. The bill would create a Metal Theft Task Force Program in the state Department of Justice. 
When funded, the program would provide grants to local law enforcement agencies and district attorneys to focus on metal theft and recycling crimes. AB 909 won approval by the Senate 39-0 and the Assembly 77-1.

Richard Wright, president of the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force and a brand inspector with the California Department of Food and Agriculture Bureau of Livestock Identification, said AB 909 would be beneficial for agencies.

"Some counties don't have the manpower and are not able to check the compliance of recyclers unless they get some information from an investigation, so hopefully this additional funding will allow them the manpower and create a more level playing field," Wright said.

Fresno County Sheriff's Ag Task Force Detective Kirby Alstrom confirmed that metal theft remains a problem on farms and ranches, noting that the problem tends to worsen when the price of metals rises.

"When prices climb back up, which they probably will, it will be a major problem again," Alstrom said. "Metal theft is not really an easy thing to do; it takes some effort. So, if there is another way (thieves) can go that takes less effort on their part, that is where they are going to go."

In another tactic to slow metal thefts, Farm Bureau and other rural crime-prevention groups support Senate Bill 485 by Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, which intends to slow the proliferation of illegal recyclers. The legislation would ensure that recyclers and junk dealers comply with current law and are properly permitted to operate their businesses.

SB 485 would require junk dealers to prove they are properly permitted to operate prior to obtaining a weighmaster certificate from county agricultural commissioners. The legislation also allows an additional $500 fee to be charged to cover the costs of these inspections.

The bill was approved by the Assembly 77-1 and the Senate 36-0. Gov. Brown has until Oct. 13 to sign or veto bills sent to him by the Legislature this year.

Source: Christine Souza, California Farm Bureau Federation.