It took a while, but I got over the theft of the enameled cast iron sink I had been saving to install in a renovated log cabin. Perhaps I shouldn’t have left it in the yard. But when I discovered old farm equipment salvaged from the barn was missing too, I decided to start asking questions.
“Have you had many complaints about theft of farm equipment and other metals?” I asked Det. Daniel Robertson of the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office.
“I can’t count them,” he replied. “[Theft] follows the price of scrap and the price is up. Even when it’s low, it’s high. And when the economy is low, it just aggravates the problem.” At more than $200 a ton, compared to $50 a ton four or five years ago, he called the price of scrap metal a “driving force” behind frequent thefts of implements and abandoned vehicles from farms and yards around Aroostook County.
Most of the trucks, trailers and pickups loaded with scrap metal are bound for 208 Limestone Street in Caribou where OneSteel Recycling, Inc., a division of Australian-owned OneSteel, opened an operation in 2010. In the 2008 financial year, OneSteel Recycling, Inc. handled in excess of 345,000 tons of ferrous scrap and had sales of $157 million, according to the company website. OneSteel Recycling employs more than 200 people in Maine, Virginia and Florida and the parent company has 11,000 employees in 300 locations worldwide.
In Caribou, a staff of six full-time employees processes ferrous metal on one side of Limestone Street and nonferrous on the other side, averaging 125,000-150,000 pounds per day. Ferrous metals are No. 1 iron, cast iron, light iron and cars. Nonferrous metals are copper, aluminum, brass and stainless steel. Cars and light iron are compressed into oversized bales for shipment by truck. No. 1 iron is transported by rail cars that carry up to 195,000 pounds of scrap per car.
Caribou serves as a feeder yard for larger OneSteel Recycling operations in Bangor and Oakland. From there the materials are shipped wherever there is a demand, overseas or within the U.S.
“The market is soft now,” said Joe Reynolds, manager of the Limestone Street facility, quoting the day’s price for No. 1 iron at $205 per ton. The prices change daily, sometimes more than once a day as the world market for metals fluctuates.
But loads of scrap roll across the scales at the Caribou yard all day long.
Some vehicles return two or three times a day. They leave with cash for loads valued under $50 and checks for loads valued at $50 or more.
While OneSteel Recycling collects scrap metal from industrial clients and scrap metal dealers, Reynolds said most of the deliveries to the Caribou yard come from individuals, known on-site as peddlers. Items must be prepared according to detailed instructions including requirements such as draining all fluids from vehicles and cutting gas tanks in half. Better prepared materials bring higher prices.
“We play by the rules,” Reynolds said, explaining he works with the Department of Environmental Protection to prevent pollution of the Aroostook River next to the yard. No closed containers are accepted and a drainage system was installed to catch any leaks.
Reynolds also has taken steps to curtail theft. Three video cameras on each side of the street record every delivery and a database of all customers includes scanned images of their driver’s licenses.
“We work with law enforcement,” he said. “When the cops come in we give them the information in the computer. We help prosecute theft to the full extent of the law.” Penalties range from fines and orders for restitution to jail time depending on the value of the stolen items and the past record of the person charged.
Cameras helped catch one customer who stole more than $2,000 from the Caribou OneSteel operation by altering receipts between his delivery of scrap on one side of the street and payment for it at the office on the other side.
“Theft has gone down a lot,” Reynolds said, citing the cameras as a deterrent. A year ago he received inquiries about stolen items almost daily. Not so today. “[The thieves] might be going other places, but they’re not coming here.”
The county sheriff’s office also has been successful in curtailing theft.
Robertson said “the old-fashioned way of talking to people” is still most effective. Neighbors of a farm owner known to have piles of old scrap noticed trucks with enormous loads of metal passing by and wondered if they could be coming from his farm. They called him, he checked, and sure enough, someone had cleaned off his property.
Fortunately for him, the load was so huge it apparently generated equivalent pride for its haulers. They stopped at a local convenience store and appeared to be photographing the load. The store owner noticed, knew who they were and was able to identify them when the sheriff came asking for information.
On occasion, the sheriff’s department also will use cameras. An indication of suspicious activity can justify placing a game camera in the area suspected of attracting thieves. Robertson found that cameras used to photograph bears lured to doughnuts can work just as well for metal mongers.
“I baited it with two radiators and four batteries. They took the bait and we got their smiling faces on film,” he said. “It doesn’t always solve the case, but it very often stops the theft.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.