The Scrum for Scrap

Does a supercharged Chinese economy make drainpipes disappear?

One afternoon a few months ago Dan Corrigan noticed that something was missing from his northeast Minneapolis home. Five brand-new, six-foot-long sections of copper drainpipe--installed to carry the flow of rainwater away from the foundation--had suddenly vanished. Corrigan had opted for more expensive copper pipes because he figured they would look better and last longer. When he found out what it would cost to have the pipes replaced and new ones installed--$600--he was incensed.

It didn't take him long to develop a theory of the crime. As he put it in a post on the internet discussion board TCpunk.com, "I knew right away that some overzealous scrapper had boosted my gutters for the $1.20 a pound they were offering at the scrap yards just across the river."

Corrigan--a photographer and longtime City Pages contributor--hopped on his bike and pedaled the short distance to Minneapolis's main scrap district. Wedged between I-94 and the Mississippi River on the Near North Side, it is one of the city's more impressive wastelands. The streets are littered with shopping carts, smashed-up televisions, mangled air conditioners, and broken glass. The air tastes like dirt and metal. Within three blocks of the district's epicenter on North Second Street, there are a liquor store, a strip joint, four bars, and three major "free market" scrap yards--places where any Joe off the street can sell a heap of sheet metal or copper pipes.

Metalmania: A can man takes a break by a North Side scrap yard
Daniel Corrigan
Metalmania: A can man takes a break by a North Side scrap yard

Corrigan stopped in at each of the yards. He asked the employees whether anything matching the description of his drainpipes had come through. Nobody knew a thing. Discouraged, Corrigan biked home and phoned the Minneapolis Police Department to report the theft.

While waiting for the cops, Corrigan happened to catch a glimpse of a scruffy looking, middle-aged guy in the yard. The visitor was examining the copper downspouts on the outside of the house, as if sizing them up for removal. An irate Corrigan rushed outside. When he noticed that the guy was in possession of a copper rain gauge he'd been given as a gift, a scuffle started.

Corrigan knocked the guy to the ground. When the guy attempted to get up, Corrigan "knuckled" him again. Then Corrigan noticed blood, and he backed off. But before the man finally limped away, Corrigan--carrying a small digital camera--snapped a quick picture of him.

 

In the realm of great larcenies, the theft of Corrigan's six copper drainpipes doesn't amount to much. But the likely cause is a yearlong bonanza of record prices for scrap metal--a prime illustration of how global economic forces can produce discrete localized effects. Put simply, maybe the reason Corrigan's drainpipes disappeared is because the Chinese economy is growing too quickly.

Traditionally, scrap is a leading economic indicator, meaning booms predict economic expansion. It is also quick to get sick in advance of recession. In the late '90s, the scrap metal business--both locally and nationally--went into the doldrums. Things turned around in June 2003, when China--with its booming manufacturing economy and, just as importantly, its constant need to expand infrastructure--could no longer satisfy its growing appetite for metal.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, prices for scrap steel rose for nine straight months. In Minnesota, the cost of one ton of iron and steel scrap went from $40 to $150 in one three-month period. As Harold Goldfine, president of the Minneapolis-based Alliance Steel Service Company put it, "We'd never seen anything like that before." While the market has since cooled, prices remain well above historic averages.

Given these conditions, scrappers have become more active lately. As the Pioneer Press reported last month, antique tractor fanciers now find themselves scouring southern Minnesota to save such farm treasures before they get shipped off to China as rolled steel. At Re-Alliance, a Minneapolis scrap yard open to the general public, manager Ryan Thomas estimates that foot traffic has increased by 30 percent in the past year.

Globally, the combination of high prices and stiff competition for scrap has led to some outrageous instances of theft. The most notorious case is probably the theft this past February of a one-ton steel bridge in the Ukraine. In another Ukrainian heist, rogue scrappers, using forged documents, tricked museum guards into turning over the nation's oldest railroad car. In the Czech district of Bohemia, metal thieves recently made off with a half-kilometer of a railroad line. And there is a variety of scrap thieving endemic in much of Africa: the constant theft of power and telephone lines by scrappers, who then burn the insulation off and sell the metal.

Stateside, for the past four years, large sections of aluminum guardrail have been regularly disappearing from state highways in New Jersey. This May, the state police finally leveled charges against the accused thief and the owners of a local scrap yard. Chuck Carr, a spokesman for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, maintains that bold theft remains "extremely rare" in the U.S. "In our industry, whenever that type of infrastructure is brought in, reputable scrap dealers will report it," he asserts. Local scrap yard managers say they keep an eye open for suspicious product. One Minneapolis company, American Iron, stopped accepting scaffolding altogether after receiving complaints from contractors about a rash of thefts from work sites.

Minneapolis Police Department spokesman Ron Reier says he is unaware of any scrap-theft trend. Officers in the property crimes divisions in the Third and Fourth precincts--north Minneapolis--say they haven't noted a spike either. But they concede that thefts are tracked by dollar value--not type--meaning that a wave of stolen scrap might not be immediately apparent.

Among Twin Cities property owners, stories still circulate about copper and other metal fixtures gone missing from vacant properties. Steve Meldahl, a Minneapolis landlord, says someone recently ripped off the plumbing from a North Side home he purchased to rehab. Meldahl, however, thinks such thefts were much more common in the late '80s.

 

On one recent afternoon, a scrapper who identifies himself only as "Mike" is busy cashing in his daily haul at one of the scrap yards on North Second Street. Mike explains that he was laid off from a construction job last summer and has been unable to find other work. The way Mike sees it, he's better off scrapping than robbing people or dealing drugs.

He then allows that he's pushed the legal boundaries in his scrapping career. Late one night, Mike says, he and a partner borrowed a vehicle and drove to East Lake Street, where they furtively stripped all the copper plumbing out of a fire-damaged house. It yielded a $300 payday. More commonly, Mike says he simply cruises a circular route of north side alleys, pushing a grocery cart and carrying a bag of tools to break down his find. On a good day, he says, pointing to his cart, he can clear $94 "with the buggy."

The day after Dan Corrigan's copper drainpipes disappeared, he printed his photograph of the copper thief and returned to the scrap yards on North Second Street. At one yard, an employee said she was certain the man in the picture was the same guy she saw hauling a load of metal across the Broadway Bridge. When Corrigan showed the picture at another yard, he says, an employee there said some copper pipes matching his description had arrived at the site that very morning.

Sure enough, they were Corrigan's missing pipes. He snapped a few pictures, gathered up the pipes, and returned home. Until he can find a way to affix them more securely to his house, he says, those babies will remain stored in his garage.

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