In Curtis Bay, a battle over lucrative junk business

Throughout the day, shirtless, tattooed men push shopping carts filled with metal scrap to a junkyard in Curtis Bay. Inside the gate, a pair of German shepherds and 16 surveillance cameras keep watch as the men unload their treasure and leave with cash.

Though small and tucked away, the scrap yard on Andard Avenue has prompted an outsized share of outrage. Neighbors complain that the business is encouraging thieves to steal metal from their homes at a time when the market for recycled metal is booming.

City Hall says the facility has expanded illegally from a recycling yard to a full-fledged scrap dealer — an important distinction for permitting purposes — and sent the business a cease-and-desist letter three months ago. But a rival scrap dealer with lawyers and a well-known lobbyist has sued the city, arguing officials are taking too long to shut down the interloper.

Manager Chris Dechakul said he's surprised to hear of the concerns.

"We're doing what we are authorized to do," said Dechakul, who runs the yard for WPN Recycling Co., the Baltimore branch of a Thailand-based corporation, Wongpanit. "We're going to follow all the rules and regulations."

WPN got a permit in May 2011 to run a recycling plant, which can accept paper, plastic and non-magnetic metal like soda cans and store the items indoors. Dechakul said he believes his license allows him to operate a scrap yard, a larger-scale business that is permitted to collect all kinds of metal, including iron, and store it outside.

Dechakul said he is careful to report all purchases to the Maryland State Police, as required by law, and had believed neighbors supported his business. He has even applied for permission to expand by adding a huge scale that can weigh scrap by the truckload. That request is pending before the city's zoning board. Five lawyers — representing the two companies and the neighborhood — attended the last hearing.

Behind the flap is this undeniable fact: Running a scrap yard in modern America is a lucrative business. According to the United Nations, demand for and production of nearly all of the world's recycled metals — including copper, aluminum, nickel and zinc — have at least tripled since the 1980s. More than 60 percent of all iron, steel and aluminum made in the United States starts with recycled metal.

Manufacturers pay more than $100 a ton for cast iron. Other metals, copper, for example, fetches $2.50 a pound.

From 2009 to 2010, the scrap metal industry experienced a 40 percent boost in value to more than $77 billion in sales, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, an industry group. Unlike many other goods, scrap is a major U.S. export, accounting for $30 billion in overseas sales. The industry processes nearly 130 million metric tons annually and employs nearly 140,000 Americans, according to the institute.

Baltimore City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who represents Curtis Bay, said companies like WPN Recycling are trying to get in on a thriving industry. More than 65 Baltimore-area companies advertise their willingness to buy scrap metal, junk automobiles and other recyclables online.

"It's profit. It's making money," Reisinger said of the demand for scrap. "I'm not against the recycling businesses, but it's got to be done right. They've got to get the right permits."

Neighbors contend that the WPN yard is encouraging thefts.

"They're fostering people to go through the neighborhood and steal metal," said Andy Dize, president of the Community of Curtis Bay Association. "People are stealing metal fences, grills, siding off sheds. A lot of these abandoned houses, people are going in and taking out the metal. They're taking anything that's not nailed down."

Forty-six neighbors have signed a petition objecting to the scrap yard, including construction worker John Payne, 41, whose nearby home was burglarized.

"They cut out all my copper pipe," he said of the thieves. "I had no water, no electricity. We've had kids' bikes stolen. We see them walking down the street with their shopping carts to the scrap yard."

The yard itself said it has been the victim of crimes. City police have been called to the facility, at 5101 Andard Ave., 13 times in the past year, including for reports of burglaries and destruction of property.

"It's druggies," Reisinger said. "Any type of metal they can find, they'll take it to sell to take care of their habit."

City officials say the operation is illegal, because it is functioning as a scrap yard instead of a recycling plant.

Gary Letteron, the city's critical area coordinator, said the yard has "overstepped what they are allowed to do" and notes the zoning office sent the company a letter of violation.

But Gary R. Jones, attorney for competitor Atlantic Recycling Group, the state's largest scrap dealer — which employs top-paid Annapolis lobbyist Gerry Evans — said that's not enough.

"The question my clients have is: If they're operating illegally, why doesn't the city shut them down? We just want a level playing field," Jones said.

In the lawsuit, Atlantic argued that Dechakul's business also goes outside its permit by operating within 1,000 feet of the Patapsco River. Scrap yards are not permitted in such an environmentally protected area.

"It's a rogue operation," Jones said. "They're taking material in at all hours. They're accepting material that comes in that is stolen. They're operating within the [environmentally protected] critical area."

Atlantic Recycling, which runs the United Iron and Metal yard in southwest Baltimore near Carroll Park, filed suit against the city on May 9, accusing officials of not enforcing the law. The next day, the city sent WPN Recycling a letter to stop nonpermitted operations within a month. A motions hearing in the lawsuit is set for September.

Dechakul disputed that his land is too close to the water, and said he plans to continue to work, making money and collecting valuable trash from residents.

His company recently posted photos on its website of all the materials it accepts — including car batteries, old computer equipment and steel.

"Waste Is Gold," the website said. "We can change bad smell to be sweetest smell and money."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad