March 2006

Stolen manhole covers drain city budgets
by Irwin Rapoport

It just isn’t sewer manhole covers and storm grates that are the objects of thieves in search of scrap metal. On February 3 just outside of Archbold, Ohio, two trucks containing more than $100,000 worth of brass scrap was stolen.

Homeowners are also being affected. Just recently, a Toledo, Ohio newspaper reported that aluminum sidings and gutter downspouts were taken from homes.

As the demand for metals continues to increase globally, the temptation to steal metal objects from municipalities and homes is great.

The City of Indianapolis had more than 30 manhole covers stolen in late January. The thefts apparently stopped with the February 1 arrest of Michael Caputo, who admitted to stealing two manhole covers. In total, four manhole covers and 47 sewer grates were lost.

“On a typical year, four to five manhole covers or grates come up missing,” said Margie Smith Simmons, a public relations officer with the city’s public works department.

She explained that manhole covers cost about $200 to replace, while sewer grates can cost between $200 and $3,000 to replace based on various factors, including new moldings and labor costs. In Indianapolis, the average manhole cover weighs approximately 120 pounds, while the average sewer grate weighs approximately 80 pounds.

But thieves do not receive much for their efforts if they are successful in finding a buyer.

“One of the scrap yards in town only offers $6 to $8 for a manhole cover,” said Simmons, who also notes that grates are being cut up after they are stolen. Scrap dealers in Indianapolis do not accept manhole covers that are identified as property of any municipality, but they do accept manhole covers that have no identification.

Simmons indicated that scrap dealers are fully aware of their obligation to contact the police should they be offered identifiable municipal property.

“They are not allowed to accept them, they know it is a crime and they contact the police,” she said.

The missing manhole covers pose a threat to motorists and especially pedestrians, as some shafts are 30 feet deep.

Police also apprehended two attempting to cut down a freeway light pole. In another incident, two men illegally entered a burned-out building and attempted to load a steel I-beam into a truck.

In Milwaukee, Racine and many parts of Illinois, says Robert Brooks, Milwaukee’s sewer service manager, legislation forbids scrap dealers to accept grate iron castings from municipalities unless they are licensed contractors that are doing a paving job. As well, municipal officials have the authority to enter a salvage yard at any time and request their records.

Within the next two to three months, the city will be testing various locking devices in problem areas to deter theft.

Columbus, Ohio was subject to thefts between June and November 2005, in which 220 storm drain grates were taken. Chicago lost almost 200 manhole covers last November, with 40 taken on a single day.

The United Kingdom is experiencing similar problems. Of 40 stolen manhole covers stolen from the City of Gloucester on March 10, 2004, police recovered 12 from a smelting plant in Newport 5 days later. The police suspect the covers were purchased from a scrap metal merchant. The theft was valued at L3000 and the crime attributed to the rising price of heavy scrap metal. In 2005 London experienced the “Great Drain Robbery” when more than 100 manhole covers were stolen over a few days.

According to a 2005 report, the price for scrap metal had nearly quadrupled over a three-year period, with an 84-per-cent increase in 2005. This led to increases in thefts of manhole covers, pipes, beams and even streetlights. Thieves are also partial to I-beams, rain gutters, wire and light metal poles. At the time, scrap dealers were paying about five cents per-pound of scrap metal.



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