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Fri, May 07, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Demand for scrap metal fuels thefts

NEW JERSEY PUZZLE Kilometers worth of aluminum guardrails are disappearing and experts believe they have been stolen to feed China's demand for scrap


In all the miles of roadway in this state, and all the jokes about them, no one saw this coming.

Unfortunately for state and local officials, no one saw anything going, either, and that makes this a bit of a mystery, as well as a madcap moment in the movie comedy starring the state of New Jersey.

The mystery involves guardrails. Several kilometers of them. The aluminum rails have been disappearing in the dead of night on heavily traveled highways.

The disappearances, which were first reported on Wednesday in The Record of Hackensack, have been noted from Paterson to Irvington. Aluminum facing has been painstakingly removed and the bolts holding it to posts sawed off, leaving stretches of stumplike posts lining the roads.

Why, say the experts, is understandable. It's a little bit of chaos theory and the so-called butterfly effect meeting Adam Smith's invisible hand, say state transportation officials and scrap-metal experts.

They say that the explosive growth of the Chinese economy has made that country the No. 1 importer of scrap metal from the US, meaning local dealers in scrap aluminum can get double their old rate for the metal and three times what scrap steel commands.

"The collection system has kicked into high gear" to cash in and meet the demand, said Christopher Plummer, managing director of Metal Strategies, a consulting firm.

"But this is happening all over the world, from Russia to the Ukraine to Australia, and especially in poorer third-world countries," Plummer said. "When it gets to the point of outright theft, then you can imagine the profits to be made."

But the thieves' profits are the State of New Jersey's loss, and raise concerns about serious accidents or even deaths. State Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere said on Wednesday that his agency had begun replacing some of the stolen railings with steel railings, which are not quite as precious in the scrap-metal market. So far, some 15,120m of railing have been bought and the department is still calculating how much more it will need.

Plummer of Metal Strategies said that aluminum was selling for about US$1.76 for 1kg, more than three times the US$0.33 to US$0.55 per kilogram that the bellwether scrap steel was bringing. And even those prices, he said, are more than twice the average price some 10 years ago.

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