Little Egg Harbor Township police went into overtime last year trying to keep residents safe following Hurricane Sandy.

Such work was difficult enough. But Chief Richard Buzby said his officers faced another problem: turning away “fleets” of people from neighboring states intent on scavenging copper pipe and other scrap metal from damaged township properties.

Buzby said the department’s efforts were not always successful. Several residents carried large appliances from their damaged homes into their yards during cleanup operations. When those residents went to retrieve the appliances, all they found were metal shells. The interior parts had been cut away and carried off.

“To have citizens revictimized like that is beyond comprehension,” Buzby said.

Copper and scrap-metal scavenging from homes, businesses and even automobiles is nothing new. However, authorities say the thefts became more common in shore communities after Sandy and have been growing in other municipalities during the past few years. Officials said the thefts are being driven internationally by a demand for copper in developing nations, domestically by people desperate for money in a weak economy, and by gang members and individuals who need cash to support narcotics operations.

While recycling companies said the per-pound price of copper has increased from about $1 to $3 during the past decade, proceeds from the sale of that material and other scrap metal can be slim. Buzby said the recent sale of a stolen $3,000 rooftop air conditioner for scrap netted its takers about $26.

Still, Lt. Edward Zadroga, of the Millville Police Department in Cumberland County, described metal theft in his economically depressed city as an “epidemic.” Vandals are taking copper pipes from abandoned homes, in some cases leaving behind basements that became flooded after the plumbing was carried away.

Even houses of worship are not safe.

About two weeks ago, members of the In His Presence Worship Center in Millville found a portion of their church that they had hoped to salvage from a December fire had been stripped of copper pipes, circulation pumps, heating vents and other materials.

“These are the times we live in,” said the Rev. David Ennis, who founded the church 10 years ago.

Times have gotten so bad that federal law-enforcement agencies consider copper theft to be a potential national security problem. The FBI states on its website that copper thefts over the past few years resulted in some railroad and 911 emergency system shutdowns.

That kind of potential public safety problem played out in Vineland, Cumberland County, in July 2010, when police reported the theft of 250 feet of Verizon telephone wire from utility poles between Garden and Mill roads. The theft, estimated by Verizon at about $40,000, resulted in the disruption of telephone service.

Atlantic City Electric spokesman Frank Tedesco said his utility has increased surveillance at company sites such as power substations, where theft of copper and scrap metal is a problem. The theft results not only in the utility losing its property but in potential safety risks from damaged wires, he said.

“There’s no telling whether a line is live or not live,” he said.

While scrap metal yards and other operations are required by law to keep track of their purchases, the extent of New Jersey’s problem is prompting new legislation that proponents contend will make it easier to track those sales.

A bill approved by the Assembly and a state Senate committee this month would require metal recycling businesses to accept deliveries only from trucks and to record the license plates of those vehicles. Payment would be allowed only through nontransferable checks mailed to the person or business that sold the scrap material. The proposal would also limit the sale of some items, such as metal beer kegs and street signs.

“We’re not in the business of rewarding theft and vandalism,” Assemblyman Angel Fuentes, D-Camden, Gloucester, a bill co-sponsor, said in a statement. “The more tools law-enforcement officers have to track down and prosecute scrap-metal thieves, the easier it will be to cut down on this activity in the first place.”

Fuentes said the incident at the Millville church is one example of why the increased regulations are necessary.

Buzby said extra help is welcome by law enforcement.

However, there is some opposition to what the legislation requires.

Joseph Giordano, president of Giordano’s Recycling in Vineland, said the measure is “too extensive” and needs to be further worked on by legislators and people in the recycling industry.

Giordano said his company already takes measures to thwart the sale of stolen copper and scrap metal. That includes recording the license plates of the vehicles in which the materials are delivered and photographing the materials while they are being weighed, he said.

“The people that are stealing stuff, they’re not coming into our business,” he said.

Giordano contends that is true of many recycling and scrap-metal companies. He argues that much of stolen material is sold to a handful of companies, some of which do not have the ability to track all of the items, and some of which just do not have respect for the law.

“They do things that they shouldn’t do,” Giordano said.

Buzby agrees that the majority of recycling and scrap-metal businesses do not accept what they believe to be stolen materials. He said some of those businesses have lost money by not accepting the materials.

Buzby said attempts to illegally scavenge copper pipes and other scrap materials continue in his municipality, and his officers are especially aware of the problem.

“We’re doing everything we can,” he said.

Contact Thomas Barlas:

609-226-9197