ELLENSBURG - Mangled and rusty metal litters the scrap yard near an off-white cargo container, which houses a makeshift office at the corner of Mountain View Ave. and Industrial Way. Assortments of miscellaneous tin, steel, copper and aluminum are stacked creating a jagged landscape. To the casual observer it may seem like unorganized garbage but Principle Metals LLC's owner, Bret Simpson, looks at the heap and sees money.

Recently, there has been renewed interest in scrap metal. Metals like aluminum, copper, tin, gold and silver reached record prices earlier this summer.

Simpson attributes the rise in prices to increased demand from China. He also said the market has been flooded by people wanting to cash in. The Spokane Valley-based Web site InfoMine.com shows that copper, aluminum and silver prices have dropped sharply since about mid-July to nearly the same level as this time in 2006.

Although, the cost of metal has dipped, transport costs remain high, which affects the business' profits. AAA reports that diesel is still $1.26 above its cost a year ago.

"Everything we've got runs on diesel, our fuel cost is high," Simpson said. "It used to be that off-road diesel was cheaper but now it's about the same. It costs us $600 a load to ship scrap to the coast."

Simpson said his company has been able to pay higher sums for scrap and keep costs down because of specialized equipment on site. He is able to ship larger loads to offset his fuel cost because of a baler he built to compact loose loads.

A full trailer can hold about 5,000 pounds of loose cans but because of the baler Simpson can load about 21,000 pounds. Loose tin in a trailer can weigh about 15,000 pounds, more than 58,000 pounds can be hauled away, if baled.

Simpson previously owned a manufacturing company called Simpson Equipment Line, which made farm equipment. He said he had to shut his company down because it couldn't compete with businesses in Canada. He cited the soaring costs of metals as the main culprit.

"We had been buying scrap steel in sheets for awhile to reduce costs," Simpson said. "We'd cut out what we needed, like a cookie cutter. When the company shut down, we had all this scrap lying around; we sold the scrap for two years and decided we liked it."

Copper is the most publicized of all the metal Principle Metals LLC accepts. Controversy surrounds this metal because of ongoing problems with copper-wire theft.

Copper theft is so widespread that the state recently placed a new regulation for scrap yards buying the metal. If a customer without a business license brings in more than $30 of copper, scrap yard owners are required by law to take the customer's name and license number and hold payment for 10 days.

Simpson says the rule is supposed to allow time for law enforcement to contact scrap yards if thefts are reported in the area.

Metal theft can be a hazard to public safety. A thief had broken into junction boxes for the Department of Transportation (DOT) weather monitoring stations, stealing copper cables. The thief was apprehended after a DOT worker spotted suspicious activity, but the damage to the monitoring stations was done leaving travelers without information on road conditions. DOT has taken drastic steps to protect the monitoring station.

"The junction boxes, where we connect the wire, we've welded those shut," said DOT spokesman, Mike Westbay. "Now to get back into those boxes, we have to cut or grind them open. It creates more work for us but luckily we don't have to get in them often."

But, copper isn't the only metal stolen for quick cash.

Kittitas County Undersheriff, Clay Myers described metal theft Kittitas County as a continuing issue.

"We have an ongoing problem, ongoing for years. Everything from steel parts from semis to sprinkler systems to power lines, and telephone lines. Ground wires have been stripped from throughout the whole county," Myers said.

Simpson said that thieves had previously sold him stripped ground wires. When the police asked him about the wires he identified the culprits and aided the police when more of the same was brought in again.

He gladly assists law enforcement in its investigations but he'd prefer to focus his energies on making a good, honest buck. And he wishes would-be metal thieves would do the same.

"An owner of a mining outfit told me how someone broke into his business office and stripped out all the wiring," said Simpson. "He said the copper wasn't worth the time it took them to strip it out. They could have gotten a job with him and made more with a day of work."


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