August 1, 2008

Manhole Covers Likely Target for Thieves

By Jodi Weigand, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Aug. 1--Drivers beware: that pothole ahead could be much deeper than it looks.

Manhole covers in Allegheny County have gone missing, mirroring a nationwide trend, as thieves lug away the heavy steel fixtures in hopes of selling them to scrap yards.

Pittsburgh roads have been mostly immune to thefts, according to city police and Melissa Rubin, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. A manhole cover was reported missing on Second Avenue Thursday morning.

But dozens of covers have been taken from rural roads in Monroeville, Penn Hills, Elizabeth and West Mifflin, said Joe Olczak, director of Allegheny County Public Works.

"It's sporadic, but it seems to be more prevalent in the more rural areas," Olczak said.

The price of steel has doubled in the past six months, and metal thefts have increased accordingly, said Detective Nick Pashel of the Pittsburgh police's burglary unit.

"Two or three years ago, this wasn't even on the radar," he said. "Now, we're getting metal theft reports every week."

Metal thefts account for 15 percent of the unit's caseload, Pashel said.

Manhole covers and sewer grates seemingly are becoming the en vogue metal item to steal.

More than 2,000 of them have been stolen in the past year in Philadelphia, according to that city's water department.

Since January, about 14 manhole covers have been stolen from Haymaker and Pitcairn roads in Monroeville and Lougeay Road in Penn Hills, at least 10 have been removed on Pangburn Hollow Road in Elizabeth, and several more have been taken on Buttermilk Hollow Road in West Mifflin, Olczak said.

Penn Hills police recovered five of the manhole covers; Monroeville, none. Elizabeth and West Mifflin police could not be reached for comment.

The county has spent $6,136 -- $236 per cover -- plus labor costs to replace stolen manhole covers this year, he said. The department is considering developing tamper-proof covers. Options include drilling and anchoring the covers or spot welding them in place, Olczak said.

Demand for scrap metal in overseas markets has driven up the price of iron and steel, said Jeremy Lincoln, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a Washington-based nonprofit association.

The increased value makes finding a way to steal the covers, which can weigh between 80 and 200 pounds, a profitable venture for thieves, he said.

"It's because 1.2 billion people in China want to live like we do," Lincoln said. "Export has gone through the roof, because American scrap is more 'on sale' due to the weak dollar."

Phoenix, Cleveland and Miami have been plagued by manhole cover thefts, said Bruce Savage, the trade association's vice president of communications.

Randy Castriota, owner of Castriota Metals & Recycling in McKees Rocks and Brookline, said his scrap yards buy manhole covers only if a municipal employee driving a municipal vehicle brings them in.

A typical cover fetches $10 to $14, he said.

"We are very aware of what's going on and very diligent not to take scrap that we suspect may have been stolen," he said. "We know most of our customers, so if we had a stranger coming in with 500 pounds of copper, then we'd probably call the police immediately."


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