Earlier this summer, thieves in Pico Rivera made off with a 200-pound brass bell from a Catholic church. Burglars around California have torn up train tracks, carted off bleachers, nabbed park statues and helped themselves to copper wiring serving neighborhoods, hospitals and airports.

The state is in the throes of a metal theft epidemic, fueled by scrap yards' willingness to pay high prices for copper and steel that can be resold to hungry factories in Asia.

(For more, see: Nasty roadway spikes nab farm copper thieves)

In Southern California, a proliferation of unpermitted scrap yards — which have set up shop here to take advantage of access to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — has exacerbated the problem.

Regulators acknowledge that, at times, they have been unable to keep up with the number of illegal operations and the environmental threat they pose. And in their eagerness to cash in on an export trade worth $7 billion annually, even some permitted scrap yards are ignoring laws designed to stem metal theft.

For more, see: Illegal scrap yards in California a burgeoning problem