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Grease theft penalties among new laws for the new year

Posted December 28, 2012 11:45 a.m. EST
Updated December 28, 2012 12:13 p.m. EST

— Slippery characters who steal used restaurant grease could face felony charges under a new law that goes into effect New Years Day. 

"What was once garbage and had virtually no value is now a commodity that people are stealing," said Rep. John Torbett, R-Stanley.

The grease law is among the last set of new laws a regulations going into effect from the 2012 General Assembly session. Among the other provisions contained in 16 bills that have Jan. 1 effective dates are:

  • more stringent background check requirements for those who work in daycare settings. (HB 737)
  • towns, cities and counties with between 100 and 500 workers must now use the federal E-verify program to make sure those they are hiring are in the United States legally. Local governments with more than 500 workers had to start doing this on Oct. 1. (HB 36)
  • doctors and groups based out of state that provide free health care services will have legal protections when they operate in North Carolina. (HB 614)

Torbett said that grease haulers and restaurants came to him with the grease theft problem addressed in HB 512. But law enforcement hasn't always taken the crime seriously, he said.

"Some judges were treating it just as a, 'What are you doing in my courtroom?' kind of thing," Torbett said. 

Under the law Torbett sponsored, grease collectors will have to carry liability insurance and provide certain paperwork that establishes ownership of the grease. Those who steal grease worth less than $1,000 would be guilty of a misdemeanor. Those who steal more than $1,000 worth of grease would be guilty of a low level felony.

Grease theft has been a national problem in states like New Jersey for years. California and Virginia have also enacted special regulations dealing with grease collection. The U.S. Department of Agriculture tracks the value of "yellow grease" as a commodity, which can fetch between 30 and 40 cents per pound. Bigger rendering companies will turn leftover grease into animal feed, cosmetics, soap and other products.

In North Carolina, small bio fuels producers used leftover grease to create biodiesel that can be used to run specially equipped automobiles or home heating systems.

"We feel like we've lost $10,000 worth of product in the past six months," said Woodrow Eaton, a co-founder of Blue Ridge BioFuels, a company based in Asheville that picks up grease from restaurants throughout Western North Carolina and part of South Carolina. "We're paying the restaurants based on the volume of grease we collect," Eaton said. Theft, he said, costs both his company money by wasting time and depriving it of raw materials, but costs restaurants money they're not getting from the sale of the grease.

"We haven't had any luck ourselves catching anyone. We're hoping law enforcement might take in more seriously" as a result of the new law," he said.

Biodiesel producers, he said, are worth the projection because they're the only domestic producers of liquid fuel in the state. "It's biodegradable, it's non-toxic...The industry has a huge amount of benefit to the state."

But not all biofuel producers are convinced the new law will be helpful.

"We call it the grease police bill," said Lyle Estill, president of Piedmont Biofuels based in Chatham County. His company collects grease from restaurants throughout the Triangle. "This bill doesn't do anything about the people who are stealing grease," he said. He said the bill will help big rendering companies at the expense of hobbyist and others who collect and use or sell small batches of grease. 

"Imagine the teacher who would collect the used grease from the school cafeteria once a week and sell it to my company. He'll no longer be able to do that...It will have no impact but it will shift the playing field in favor of big (companies)," Estill said.