Credit: Photo: Stabiloc LLC

Above, right: Surging scrap metal prices have led to an increase in manhole cover thefts all over the globe—leaving municipalities holding the bag. Photo: Jenni Spinner. Above: A handful of devices—including this lock from Stabiloc LLC in Warren, Mich.—retrofit onto manhole covers to deter thieves.

Thieves can be a bold, resourceful lot. They swipe Subarus in broad daylight, pilfer pants in the midst of crowded malls, and make off with makeup in busy department stores. These crimes cost retailers and citizens billions of dollars annually. A recent trend in theft, however, poses a threat to public works budgets-and public health.

Manhole covers are disappearing at an astounding rate across the country, and around the world. In November, sticky-fingered individuals in Chicago made away with more than 150 covers. Officials in Milwaukee had to replace nearly three dozen covers this past summer, in contrast to the typical one or two during the same time period. In the Newham area of east London, 93 covers disappeared in a single week. In a two-month span, more than 10,000 covers in Calcutta, India, vanished (the replacement concrete covers were also stolen, this time for the iron rebar inside them).

These must be some muscle-bound bandits-the average cover can weigh anywhere from 100 to a whopping 300 pounds or more, depending on application. The motivation behind this wave is skyrocketing scrap metal prices, which have nearly quadrupled over the past four years. Even with the significant price increase, though, this is not exactly a lucrative crime wave; in most areas, scrap steel and iron only fetch about a nickel a pound. This means that the average manhole caper only brings in about S5-if, that is, the thief can find a buyer. Most reputable scrap companies wouldn't dream of taking such loot.

“We have a strict policy against accepting any ‘municipal interest' materials-manhole covers, guard rails, light poles, garbage containers-anything for public use,” said Brad Serlin, vice president of United Scrap in Cicero, III. “When someone brings something like that in, we work closely with the town and surrounding police forces and report it.”

The cost to the cities having to replace the stolen covers is higher. For example, according to Tom LaPorte, spokesperson with Chicago's Department of Water, each manhole cover that disappears costs the Windy City $46, plus labor. When you figure in the amount of effort required to lift a hefty manhole cover, manhole theft does not seem to provide a good profit margin.

What's more, the vanishing manhole covers threaten more than cities' pocketbooks. An uncovered manhole could swallow up pedestrians, causing injury and even death. In addition, the gaping holes could trap cars and cause vehicle damage, traffic snarls, and other headaches.

What's the solution to this growing nuisance? A number of manufacturers offer hinged covers. In addition to deterring thieves, this attribute makes it easier for a single person to lift and move covers in order to perform maintenance. A handful of companies, such as Warren, Mich.-based Stabiloc LLC, offer devices that can be retrofitted onto covers to thwart thieves. However, according to LaPorte, the most effective weapon has proven to be word of mouth.

“After Thanksgiving, the city got the word out through media, encouraging the public to report incidents,” he said. “We got a great response, and the number of thefts went down within a few days.”

Disappearing metal

Scrap-hungry thieves have struck all over the globe in the past two years. Here are some of the hardest-hit spots. Source:

  • Columbus, Ohio, August 2003: 25 sewer grates and covers
  • Shanghai, China, January 2004:1826 manhole covers
  • Gloucester, England, March 2004:48 manhole covers
  • Milwaukee, during 2004: more than 160 grates