Soaring prices have triggered a vicious, hidden conflict over oil. There have been midnight raids, deception, backstabbing, outright theft and criminal arrests. Only we're not talking about the Middle East or tanker hijackings, and petroleum isn't involved at all.
This is happening right here in Connecticut, and the highly coveted commodity happens to be used cooking oil. That's right, the greasy stuff left over from preparing your french fries, bacon burgers, and General Tso's chicken in deep-fat fryers, woks and on diner cooktops.
Grease rustlers are ripping off restaurants and cooking oil recycling companies all over this state and the rest of the nation, raking in tens of thousands of dollars in illegal profits.
"It's happened at nearly all of our locations," says Dana Smith, a member of the family that operates a chain of Five Guys Burgers and Fries restaurants in Fairfield County. "It's happened in Brookfield, Norwalk, Westport and Fairfield."
One of the most recent oil-sucking raids happened a couple of weeks ago at the Fairfield Five Guys franchise, where thieves got away with an estimated $600 worth of used peanut oil. The thieves sell their stolen grease to biofuel-refining companies.
Brent Baker, CEO of Durham-based Connecticut Biofuels LLC, estimates his recycling company lost something like $120,000 last year to cooking-oil bandits. Baker also operates a sister recylcing firm out of the Bronx, NY, but says the problem is worse in this state.
He also accuses competitors, like Grease Guys, of using underhanded tactics and outright lying to steal away customers.
Grease Guys owners deny they've screwed anybody. "We're one of the few companies out there trying to put a stop to [cooking oil thefts]," says Al Forte, an official with the Bethlehem and Waterbury-based company.
In fact, Grease Guys has been accusing Baker's company of stealing Grease Guys containers from behind restaurants — a charge labeled as totally false by Connecticut Biofuels.
Baker's company has reported one alleged cooking-oil thief, a former employee named Steven Finkler, to police. Finkler was arrested last fall in connection with the theft of used cooking oil from a Wendy's in Torrington, according to court records and his lawyer, Al Mencuccini.
"He supposedly arranged for some company to pick up $25 to $75 worth of used oil," says Mencuccini, adding that Finkler has pleaded not guilty to the criminal conspiracy charge.
Mencuccini also denies Baker's claims that Finkler was systematically attempting to steal Connecticut Biofuel customers or ripping them off on a regular basis. "The proof that those accusations are inaccurate is that there have been no subsequent arrest warrants," Finkler's attorney says.
Finkler was arrested on half a dozen other criminal charges last year. Mencuccini insists those cases were "totally unrelated" to the alleged cooking-oil conspiracy.
Recycled cooking oil, in case you're not tuned into this tree-hugging technology, can be used in any diesel-powered vehicle or in cars converted to run this type of non-petroleum-based fuel.
Baker, who's been in the cooking-oil recycling game since 1995, says the problem of these greasy ripoffs began to get really serious last spring when the price for recycled oil caught fire (so to speak).
He says the cost of a gallon of the stuff went from the normal $1.50 a gallon up as high as $3.37. Like any commodity, recycled cooking oil prices tend to fluctuate, but that jump "was a big, fairly unusual increase," Baker says.
"When the price went that high, we saw thefts go through the roof," Baker recalls. "Now we're getting picked off all the time."
Paul Colson, an official with Western Massachusetts Rendering Co. of Southwick, Mass., said the serious thefts "actually started a little over a year ago, but it's really bad now, and more widespread."
Colson, whose company services restaurants in Connecticut, western Massachusetts and eastern New York, says the theft problem appearse to be worse in Connecticut than other areas.
Kip Moncrief, Connecticut operations for Baker's company, says they've had to go to specially designed barrels and containers with heavy locks and grates, and even those don't always foil the grease thieves. "With the evolution of containment, we've had an evolution of theft," Moncrief says.
Grease theft has been going on for decades. Back in 1998, Homer Simpson got in trouble over a cooking-oil scam during one episode of"The Simpsons."
Baker says that, when he started out in this business, most restaurants were paying to have their used cooking oil disposed of in landfills. Then recycling companies started offering to take the oil away for free.
It wasn't until prices began spiking for recycled grease that people began offering restaurants cash for their used oil. Dana Smith says her family's Five Guys chain now gets between $1.50 and $1.65 a gallon for its cooking oil.
According to Baker, his company has been forced to play the same game. He's worried that, if prices for biofuels drop back to traditional levels, a lot of firms in the recycling business are going to get hammered.
Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that cooking-grease recycling companies across the nation have resorted to private investigators, surveillance cameras and special alarms to combat the sudden surge in thefts.
Ben Aubin, sales and business development manager for Baker's company, has taken to video-taping customers' stories about the unsavory tactics of other recycling firms trying to get their used oil.
California and Virginia have passed laws regulating grease collection from commercial kitchens. So far, Connecticut state government and members of Connecticut's General Assembly appear to have little interest in this less-than-sexy issue.
Moncrief says he doesn't know exactly where the thieves are selling the stolen oil, but somebody in the refining business must be buying it. Commercial refiners heat the used oil to help eliminate water and contaminants.
"There's no regulation on this," Moncrief says of Connecticut's wild-and-woolly cooking grease recycling scene. "We'd love to see some regulations," he adds, saying there are no requirements now to force someone to prove where he got used oil and to whom he sold it.
"I have not heard anything about this," admits Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy's top criminal justice adviser.
Part of the problem, says Baker, is that cops and law enforcement types often tend to shrug when they get complaints that someone is stealing used cooking oil. Colson agrees: "At first, the police didn't take it seriously. … They couldn't believe anyone would be taking cooking oil."
And that's apparently true all over the country. Police and prosecutors would much rather be going after drug dealers and killers than deal with this greasy wave of back-ally crime.
"We've had to yell and scream and jump around," Baker says of his efforts to get the attention of Connecticut law enforcement.
"I don't really blame the police," he adds. "It's just not taken as seriously as if people were stealing something else … but these people are criminals."
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