Spate Of Manhole Cover Thefts Poses Problem It used to be a kids' prank, but manhole cover theft has become an expensive problem for cities such as Long Beach, Calif. Each lid weighs more than 200 pounds, but thieves anxious to capitalize upon the rising cost of scrap metal aren't deterred.

Spate Of Manhole Cover Thefts Poses Problem

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Some people strapped for cash have found a quick fix: stealing manhole covers. Thieves sell the heavy lids to scrap metal dealers for prices that continue to rise. Manhole cover theft has been a huge problem for years in countries such as India and in China. Long Beach, California is one of the latest American cities to be hit by this odd and dangerous trend. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: Stealing a manhole cover, especially one in the middle of a busy street, seems to be a tough crime to pull off, unless you know how.

(Soundbite of banging metal)

Mr. CHRIS WILKERSON(ph) (Long Beach Water Department): There's a pick-hole side here to help pop it up.

KAHN: Chris Wilkerson isn't a thief but a veteran of the Long Beach Water Department. All he needs is a pick axe.

Mr. WILKERSON: ...because this is about 215 pounds of cast iron, and then I've just got to flip it over and use the handle, this - to go ahead and pull it over to the side so that we can, you know, gain entrance into this manhole.

KAHN: That took Wilkerson all of 23 seconds.

Okay, you look really strong, but you couldn't pick that up and throw it in the back of a car.

Mr. WILKERSON: I believe that would take two people or a very well-built person to be able to try to lift it.

KAHN: Since January, 80 manhole covers have been pilfered from Long Beach streets. Ryan Alsop(ph), also of the Water Department, says before that the city had lost only one.

Mr. RYAN ALSOP (Long Beach Water Department): So 2008 has been a wake-up call, really. It's - you know, theft of these has really ratcheted way up, and it's become a real problem.

KAHN: A 30-inch-wide open hole in the middle of the street can cause a lot of problems. At least two Long Beach car owners who drove over the open sewer chambers have claims against the city, and in Philadelphia a 12-year-old girl was injured after she fell into an open manhole.

Laura Copeland of the Philadelphia Water Department says the thieves are relentless.

Ms. LAURA COPELAND (Philadelphia Water Department): And this is a low estimate, I think up to 10 a day.

KAHN: That's 10 manhole covers and sewer grates stolen every day, and it's happening across the country. Cherokee County, Georgia lost 30 sewer covers in just two weeks; Chicago lost 200 in a month; and 75 were lifted in Greensboro, North Carolina. Philadelphia police have made a few arrests, but water department spokeswoman Laura Copeland says the local scrap metal dealers are partly to blame, since they're the ones buying the stolen manhole covers.

Ms. COPELAND: You know, the thieves wouldn't be taking them if they weren't getting money for them.

KAHN: But even with scrap metal fetching record high prices, double over last year's, recyclers only pay about $10 to $15 per cover. Chuck Carr, a spokesman for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, says cities should do more to lock the lids down.

Mr. CHUCK CARR (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries): Years ago we learned to put deadbolts on our doors to protect jewelry and valuables in the home. Today we have to think of ways to at least make sure that these materials don't become easy targets for thieves.

(Soundbite of manhole cover)

KAHN: That's closed.

Mr. WILKERSON: That's closed.

Mr. WILKERSON: Back in Long Beach, Chris Wilkerson drops the manhole cover over the open sewer chamber. He says the city is looking into special locks, welding the covers shut or even buying new ones made of fiberglass or some other heavy-duty material that isn't in such high demand. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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