The great drain robbery: Scrappy thieves taking aim at manhole covers
A stagnant economy, coupled with rising prices for scrap metal, is propelling the growing number of thefts. In 2004, scrap steel sold for $353 per ton, and today it’s selling for $608 per ton, according to estimates reported on the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries’ (ISRI) Web site.
Philadelphia, Long Beach, Calif., Macon, Ga., Ocala, Fla., and Streetsboro, Ohio, are just a few of that many communities that recently have reported thefts of manhole covers and other metal infrastructure products that are then sold to scrap dealers and recyclers.
In California, the League of California Cities has urged the California State Assembly to pass pending legislation that would increase restrictions on dealers and recyclers who buy scrap manhole covers, brass valves and other infrastructure products.
Put your manholes under lock and key
In light of the recent rash of thefts, ISRI Vice President of Communications Bruce Savage urged cities to secure their manhole covers and other infrastructure materials.
“The more cities can do to secure the items, the better,” Savage said. “For manhole covers, we recommend that cities put them under lock and key, or do spot welds so they aren’t easily removed and taken away without some effort. If the covers are in areas that are frequently hit, we would suggest placing them under surveillance of some sort.”
Putting distinctive marks on the covers might also help, Savage told GovPro.com.
ISRI’s theft-alert system can help, Savage added.
“Local law enforcement can contact us, and give us a description of the materials that have been stolen – and the more detailed the description the better,” he said. “We’ll then turn around and package the information on the theft, and send it out to all of the recyclers and scrap dealers – not only in the state where the theft occurred, but also adjoining states because thieves will often go outside their area, hoping to avoid detection.
“So what we do is a large regional broadcast of the information, to make our members, scrap dealers and recyclers aware of the material theft, and to be on the watchout for these materials. We include a local contact number, so that if they see the materials, the dealers can contact local law enforcement to make them aware that they’ve got the materials.”
Savage added that ISRI members do a fairly extensive data collection on each transaction. Dealers and recyclers collect the following information:
- Name of person who is bringing the material in.
- The person’s driver’s license number.
- The license plate number of the truck that is bringing the materials in.
- Other data that can assist law enforcement in tracking down stolen infrastructure materials.
The ISRI is a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that represents 1,350 private, for-profit dealers and other companies that process, broker, and industrially consume scrap commodities, including ferrous and nonferrous metals. Click here for more information on ISRI’s efforts to combat theft of infrastructure materials.
The nature of the scrap metals industry
As lawmakers craft new legislation to combat these kinds of thefts, Savage hopes that legislators keep in mind the nature of the scrap metals industry.
“Some of the things [lawmakers] are recommending can be impractical, such as they want us to tag and hold materials for long periods of time –10, 15 days or more,” Savage asserted. “The nature of our industry is that dealers and recyclers do a fairly quick processing of these materials. They just don’t have the physical facilities to hold these materials for extended periods.”
Commodity prices that fluctuate on a daily basis, Savage told GovPro.com, would be another barrier to dealers hanging onto commodities for lengthy time frames.
“Dealers anticipate a quick turnaround – that they can move commodities out fairly quickly, so that commodity prices are not going to be dramatically different than what they were assuming when they purchased the materials,” Savage said.
Combating the great drain robbery
Among products that are designed to help, Garden City, N.Y.-based Manhole Barrier Security Systems Inc. manufactures a locking shield that protects manholes from thieves and other criminals.
“Our device is an all-purpose tool,” explained John Messer, operations manager. “It deters terrorism, prevents vandalism, mitigates liability, prevents theft, etc. Our device is a practical, effective and affordable manhole locking device.”
For more on the locking shield, click here.
Another product worth considering is the Revolution manhole frame and cover. Optional bolting on the cover limits access, thus decreasing the likelihood of theft or vandalism. East Jordan Iron Works Inc. of East Jordan, Mich., is the manufacturer. Read about this product in the upcoming July edition of Government Product News.