If you think breathing on the streets of a large city is difficult now, imagine what it was like 50 years ago, when vehicles guzzling lead-based gasoline spewed poison from their tailpipes, and smog was just one of those things everyone lived with.
A lot of that changed for the better thanks to a French engineer who had migrated to Philadelphia in the 1950s, Eugene Houdry. He had already invented a device designed to refine the exhaust coming from industrial smokestacks. And he was determined to do the same for cars.
That work produced the catalytic converter — a device that converts toxic gases like carbon monoxide, oxidized hydrocarbons, nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide into water and the very gas we exhale in every breath, carbon dioxide. A catalytic converter is quite simple in its construction, but does require precious metals like platinum, palladium and rhodium to initiate the chemical conversion.
And it’s those very metals that, for years, have attracted thieves of all kinds. While wheels and rims remain among the most popular parts stolen from cars, the number of catalytic converters taken continues to grow. They fetch up to $350 on the black market, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association, but can cost the average vehicle owner more than $2,500 to replace.
They’re attractive to thieves because they’re easy to steal and almost impossible to trace.
Trying to track down these thieves has left many in law enforcement frustrated over the years — but not the Nassau County Police Department.
Last week, Commissioner Patrick Ryder announced that raids in Long Beach, Island Park and Huntington recovered several hundred stolen converters, and some $4 million in cash. Nassau police also confiscated a number of decanting machines, which broke down the platinum-group metals before they were allegedly shipped as far away as Montana.
If there were ever a perfect holiday gift law enforcement could give the community, this is it — a result of solid investigation and teamwork with the fine folks in the Nassau County district attorney’s office, U.S. Homeland Security and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
No arrests have been made so far, but they are expected to be coming. It’s a ring that hit not only Nassau County and the greater New York City area, but the entire tri-state region. Knowing that all of it was being organized in our own backyard is disconcerting, but seeing the significant strides our local leaders have made to try and combat this type of theft is encouraging.
The Nassau County Legislature pushed a bill last spring that will require all businesses buying catalytic converters to collect information on who the seller is — with proper ID — as well as a copy of the title, make, model and vehicle identification number of the vehicle the part came from. This is important, because scrap yards that aren’t exactly on the up and up can purchase stolen converters for hundreds of dollars, and then turn them around for a tidy profit once they extract the valuable metals inside.
With this cataloging law in place, Nassau County officials can work to ensure that every converter that changes hands has an appropriate paper trail. Businesses dealing with these converters must maintain these records for five years, or face stiff fines.
Other governments have tried their own programs, like engraving VINs onto converters, and even making their theft a felony.
But as the Nassau County bust has proven, catalytic converter theft isn’t just a local crime. It’s one that knows no boundaries. And it’s why the National Automobile Dealers Association is pushing Congress to pass federal legislation that would make the theft and trafficking of converters a federal crime, while funding groups to help stamp the devices with the VINs of the vehicles they belong to.
The Prevent Auto Recycling Theft Act — or PART Act — would provide a federal framework for state and local laws to combat this kind of theft. But while it has some bipartisan support, it doesn’t have anywhere near the oomph to get it to the floor and eventually onto President Biden’s desk.
Eugene Houdry invented a device intended to help us breathe easier. And expanding these great strides to curb catalytic converter theft in our neighborhoods will allow all of us to keep breathing easier.