Asked and Answered: Rashida Tlaib

A package of bills was recently introduced in the Michigan legislature that would reform existing statutes on the buying and selling of scrap metal. The new rules would require a detailed reporting form with each purchase, including the name of employee weighing the scrap metal, the description of the materials, a photograph of the material and delayed payment to a street address. The Scrap Metal Regulatory Package Act would also prohibit the selling or buying of public fixtures, construction equipment and tools, materials that are clearly marked as belonging to a business, catalytic converters unless from an automotive recycler, AC units, burnt copper wire, cemetery-related articles and any items that the buyer knows is stolen property. It also requires that all employees have access to scrap theft alerts as well as requiring all scale operators, purchasers, or supervisors at scrap metal dealerships to receive training on how to identify and prevent the purchase of banned materials. Each scrap metal dealership will also for the first time be required to obtain a state license to operate. This package would also make it a crime to steal scrap metal and includes penalties that increase with the value of the scrap metal stolen and the number of violations that a scrap metal thief commits. Rep. Rashida Tlaib was first elected to the Michigan House of Representatives for the 12th House District (Detroit) in 2008. She was raised in Southwest Detroit, the eldest of 14 children. A daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Representative Tlaib was the first Muslim woman elected to the Michigan Legislature. She is one of the cosponsors of the scrap metal package.

Thorpe: How big is the scrap metal theft problem?

Tlaib: We are one of the top states when it comes to insurance claims based on scrap metal theft. At one point we were second in the nation. If you look at what it's done to the lighting department alone in the City of Detroit, it's drained a tremendous amount of resources. We can see it, we can feel it. I put a work group together. We had the scrap metal industry there, the prosecutor's association, the state police and local police including the Detroit police department. We had people from both the rural and urban communities. I learned a lot more than I needed to about scrap metal!

Thorpe: Any particular horror stories to share?

Tlaib: We have wind farms in Michigan with giant turbines. That industry was growing and, in Sanilac County near Port Huron, sheriffs were pulling people off those towers on an almost daily basis because they were cutting off wire. The industry lost about $60,000 in just one week to scrap metal theft. There are farmers who find that their farm equipment is gone. In the city of Detroit a number of cemeteries have been targeted. Doors and gates have been stolen from mausoleums. In one case, people in a neighborhood in my district kept smelling natural gas. Thieves had been stealing pipe from a library and it produced a huge gas leak. There could've been an explosion and people could've been injured or killed. Also, scrap metal thieves are relying on fire to make metal available. They come back the next day because it loosens up the walls and exposes the burnt copper wires, which they then take to scrap metal yards. Scrap metal thieves have actually attended some of the town halls and said, "Well, it's abandoned anyway." In Flint, more than 100 sewer covers were stolen. And it hurts individual families. I've seen people work so hard on fixing up their homes, then turn around and their gutters or siding is gone.

Thorpe: Tell us about the bills and your cosponsors.

Tlaib: It's a bipartisan bill. Rep. Paul Muxlow (R-Brown City), Rep. Jim Ananich (D-Flint) and Rep. Rick Olson (R-Saline) joined me in introducing a five-bill package. For example, the bills would require a photograph of the material on the scale. That would really help law enforcement. Right now, they might only see a receipt that says, "copper number two." That doesn't show what was really purchased and it's very vague. The photograph will then be attached to a form, similar to what they use at pawn shops. The form will specifically identify the employee who weighed the purchase, what was purchased, former ownership, where they came from and, then, an actual signature. There will also be a prohibited list. You won't be able to buy catalytic converters from just off the street. You'll have to prove you're a legitimate automotive recycler. Other items that would be prohibited include burnt copper wire, air conditioning units, public fixtures, any materials from new construction and any items related to cemeteries. The most controversial part of the bill is the one that would prohibit cash transactions. Oregon has already done this and it was very effective. One of the biggest attractions of scrap metal theft here in Michigan is that you can walk in with scrap material and walk out with cash. My bill would require a "traceable instrument," meaning a check. It would have to be mailed to a street address, not a P.O. box, and that would trace the transaction to the individual involved. This is what the scrap metal industry is very much opposed to. We've been meeting since July 2011 and the no cash transaction issue kept coming up. Law enforcement and prosecutors very much want it because it's so hard to trace the transactions. The bill would also cover both ferrous and non-ferrous metals, which has not been the case before. Theft of steel fencing, for example, is huge.

Thorpe: What are the prospects for the bills?

Tlaib: A bipartisan work group has developed the five-bill package and the governor's office is now supporting the package. They're making it part of his urban agenda, even though I think it's a statewide issue. Every part of the state has been affected by scrap metal theft. We're moving forward with some changes. We've been waiting way too long. The families of Michigan deserve action on this issue. No one can say there's not a problem.

Published: Thu, Jun 14, 2012