Manhole theft skyrockets due to high steel costs

This year’s steel price hike is affecting more than the cost of goods and materials made from the scarce metal. It’s increasing the cost of road upkeep too. Cities around the world such as Chicago, London and Shanghai have experienced an outbreak in stolen manhole covers, which are taken to scrap yards and sold. The price of scrap metal has almost quadrupled over the past three years, and has gone up 84 percent in the past year alone, making thefts of metal items like manhole covers, pipes, beams and even streetlights lucrative acts.

From June to November of this year, Columbus, Ohio, had more than 220 storm drain grates stolen, and Chicago lost almost 200 manhole covers in the month of November, with 40 covers stolen in one day. In London, where more than 100 manhole covers were taken over a few days, newspapers have dubbed the phenomenon the “Great Drain Robbery.” In Shanghai, China, 1,800 covers were stolen over a six-week period, and eight people drowned after they fell into the open manholes.

For the city departments that have to deal with replacing the covers, the theft can be expensive. A new manhole cover can cost anywhere from $45 to $75, plus labor. Scrap yards usually pay about 5 cents per pound for scrap metal. Since covers weigh about 125 pounds a piece, the thieves are probably paid about $6.25 per cover.

Other metal items popular with thieves include pipes, rails, I-beams, rain gutters, wire and even metal light poles. In Columbus, police caught two men trying to cut down a freeway light pole with a saw. In the same city, two men broke into a burned-out building and tried to load a steel I-beam onto a pick-up truck. The beam was later found, but the thieves got away.

Law enforcement officials have been reminding scrap yard operators that it’s illegal to purchase items such as manhole covers, streetlight poles and guardrails from peddlers.

To read previous stories about steel prices, click on the links to the right.