Three weeks ago 12-year-old Shamira Fingers from South Philadelphia was walking down a city street near her home when she suddenly fell into an open sewer hole. Frantic witnesses called 911, and rescue crews rushed to the scene, pulled her out and took her to Children's Hospital, where she was reportedly treated and released. Investigators say Fingers was very fortunate to escape serious injury or even death after falling six feet into an open manhole, the cover of which had been stolen. In the last year a staggering 600 manhole covers have been swiped by thieves in Philadelphia.
"We used to see a handful taken each year, but nothing like this," Martin McColl, inlet cleaning supervisor for the Philadelphia Water Department, tells NEWSWEEK. "We lost 12 of them just last night in the north Philadelphia area. I'm in absolute shock by what we've seen here over the past year."
Manhole thefts aren't exclusive to Philadelphia. Thousands of cast iron manhole covers in cities across the country have been pilfered in the past year. Chicago lost 200 in one month, with 40 reportedly taken in a single day. Seventy-five have been taken recently in Greensboro, N.C. More than 50 have been stolen in Long Beach, Calif., since January. And in Cherokee County, Ga., more than 30 have been taken in just the last two weeks.
The cast iron covers, which typically weigh between 100 and 200 pounds, are being taken by opportunistic thieves responding to the increased value of scrap metal and the burgeoning demand for recycled metals in China, India, South Korea and other developing nations. In 2001 scrap metal sold for $77 a ton. In 2004 it was $300 per ton, and today it's nearly $500. Stealing the covers is usually a two- or three-man operation, police say, in which the thieves yank the covers out of their holes with crowbars, throw them in the backs of vans or trucks, and take them to scrap metal yards, where they get only $10 to $20 per cover.
There have been few injuries reported to date, but this rash of thefts has created an obvious safety hazard for unsuspecting pedestrians like Fingers as well as for motorists and bicyclists. It's also costing municipalities big bucks. Replacing a single manhole cover costs as much as $500, including labor costs to cut the new cover in addition to the cost of materials. In Philadelphia, McColl says, most of the stolen covers are technically not over manholes but "inlets," which can be either circular or rectangular. The covers weigh an average of 40 to 60 pounds, and their theft has already cost the city more than $50,000.
Manhole cover theft is not an easy crime to stop. "It's tough to catch these thieves in the act," says Lt. Frank Valore of the Philadelphia Police Department. "But we're setting up stings; we're working on it. It's a high priority." In Long Beach, Calif., the cops are trying to catch a small group of aggressive thieves that has struck mostly in the alleyways in the southwest part of the city over the last several months. More than 50 manhole covers belonging to the Long Beach Water Department have gone missing since the beginning of the year (10 disappeared in just one day last week).
"We're taking this very seriously," says Lt. Gary Christensen, who heads the property crimes division of the Long Beach Police Department. "Imagine driving your car at 30 mph and hitting one of these holes. It can tear the wheel of your car right off and cause injury to the people in the car. Or riding your bicycle over one of them. And for a pedestrian this could be a fatal accident." Christensen says his department has broadcast information to recycling and scrap metal dealers and even attended the scrap metal association's regional meeting. But, he adds, "We need more help from the public. Our officers can't be in every alleyway and on every street and intersection."
So far, no arrests have been made in Long Beach, but there have been a few busts in other cities. An Indianapolis man's arrest ended a spree there that left more than 30 missing in late January. And police in Atlanta busted a large manhole cover ring in which three men had loaded a van with several covers and their frames. The three men were arrested and charged with interfering with government property and theft by receiving. "We got a 911 call from someone who saw someone throwing something into a manhole," says Maj. Joseph Harris of the Atlanta police. "We had an officer close by who was able to detain the three men. Inside their van the officer found a total of nine manhole covers and about the same number of frames, which weigh 200-plus pounds."
This epidemic is not just limited to manhole covers. It is tied into the overall problem of theft of recyclable metals—aluminum, copper, stainless steel, brass, etc.—all of which have increased in value as demand has risen. Virtually anything containing recyclable metal is at risk of being stolen—from catalytic converters in cars to copper pipes in homes. Even beer kegs. The beer industry estimates that it is losing some $50 million in stolen stainless steel kegs every year.
Cities across the country have enacted, or are considering, metals theft legislation. But the resulting patchwork of statutes has resulted in a set of poorly written laws that are unenforceable and ineffective and that unnecessarily harm recycling, suggests Frank Cozzi, outgoing chair of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), the industry's largest trade organization. Cozzi says his organization has worked diligently to educate scrap metal and other recyclers about the theft problem and to urge that dealers comply with the law.
"Metals theft has become a huge problem all over the world," says Cozzi. "As a trade association with representatives from 35 countries, we've been dealing with this for a few years, but it has definitely gotten worse in last year or so as a result of the high demand from China and India and other countries."
Cozzi's association has teamed up with the crime prevention organization group McGruff the Crime Dog, implemented ISRI scrap theft alerts, and made recommendations to members to reject stolen material. In a strongly worded letter on ISRI's Web site, Cozzi urges scrap dealers to take the high road and not purchase stolen material. But many scrap dealers—even the ones who are not buying the manhole covers—are resisting efforts to cooperate with police. The argument commonly heard from the scrap metal dealers is that it's sometimes impossible to differentiate stolen items from legal ones. They fear regulation, retaliation and prosecution, says Cozzi, who is trying to get his members to stop talking to their lawyers so much and start talking to police.
Meanwhile, cities face an uphill battle fighting this crime wave. Officials in Philadelphia have begun attaching locks to the covers. About 25 percent of the city's covers are now locked down. But that's a time- and labor-intensive process. In Philadelphia, the city hit hardest by this problem, city water officials and the police are urging the public to report any missing manhole covers and, if they see anyone stealing one, to please call 911 immediately so that there are no more accidents like the one that befell little Shamira Fingers. Says McColl, "We're making progress. But we have a long way to go and we really need the citizens' help."