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Catalytic converter thieves hit St. Louis water department, legislators look to solutions

A City of St. Louis Water Division vehicle passes a security checkpoint on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024 in Forest Park Southeast. In two separate incidents in December, thieves stole over $50,000 worth of catalytic converters from the division’s pipe yard where departmental vehicles are parked.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
A St. Louis Water Division vehicle passes a security checkpoint on Jan. 19. In two separate incidents in December, thieves stole catalytic converters from department vehicles.

St. Louis police continue to investigate two separate thefts of catalytic converters from vehicles that belong to the St. Louis water department while state legislators consider ways to reduce the crime.

Police responded to the most recent theft at the department’s pipe yard at 4600 McRee Ave. in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood shortly before 8 a.m. Dec. 21. Employees reporting to work discovered that four vehicles had their catalytic converters stolen. A few days earlier, 10 converters were reported stolen.

“Some of the details I don’t want to give out, but they cut the fence and came in in the middle of the night,” said Curt Skouby, director of public utilities for the city.

The department made security changes that appear to be effective, Skouby said. He added that having 14 vehicles out of commission did not affect customer service, though “it made things complicated when you come in the morning, and you have to rearrange what vehicles people are driving.”

The theft totaled about $50,000. The city used an emergency appropriation to replace the parts.

Thieves target the converters because they contain valuable recyclable metals and can be stolen quickly. They are expensive to replace, with costs ranging from several hundred dollars to a few thousand.

St. Louis police do not track catalytic converter thefts specifically. But the department received 1,752 reports of theft of motor vehicle parts, which would include catalytic converters, in 2023. That’s down from 2,712 in 2022, a 35% decrease.

St. Louis County police saw a 64% decline in catalytic converter thefts specifically.

But lawmakers in Jefferson City hope to pass legislation this session that could drive those numbers down even further.

The state House Committee on Emerging Issues recently took testimony on two pieces of legislation. One boosts the requirements for salvage yards that want to accept catalytic converters and makes the crime a low-level felony. Another would require the seller of a catalytic converter to provide the scrapyard with the vehicle identification number of the car where the part came from.

Shannon Cooper, a lobbyist for Advantage Metal Recycling, told the committee that engraving the VIN on catalytic converters would be a more permanent solution.

“If somebody brings a converter into our facility, they're just going to hand us a VIN number. We have no way of tracking that down and knowing if that car belongs to Shannon Cooper, and he's the person selling it,” he said.

This is not the first time lawmakers have attempted to address the issue. Similar bills last year got caught up in end-of-session infighting.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.