It happens only in India? Well, think again

DHEREENDRA GOPAL” forwards a link from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that shows manhole thefts aren’t an Indian speciality alone. It happens in the wild west, too. But have we gotten the better of the thieves by making concrete-cast covers?

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By MARY MacDONALD

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Of all the worthless things to steal, a sewer cover would seem to rank high on the list.

Or so Clayton County police Chief Jeff Turner thought, when several of the hefty discs vanished last year from a new subdivision.

“I thought it was strange,” he said.

Now Turner knows the manhole covers are made of iron, a metal that can fetch enough cash as salvage to make a moment of heavy lifting worthwhile. Scavengers seeking metals have pried up covers in several metro counties, and are even disturbing gravesites.

Their brazenness is inspired by near-record prices for brass, copper, aluminum and other semiprecious metals. Like crows, thieves are descending on anything that shines.

In Indianapolis last year, several abandoned houses gradually were stripped of aluminum siding. In Washington state, farmers have reported thefts of irrigation pipes. In Chicago, sewer grates have disappeared.

Burglars in Gwinnett County last year broke into the bases of cellphone towers, stripping them of valuable copper components.

In DeKalb County, families heading to cemeteries with flowers have discovered graveside metal vases gone. At the 18th century gravesite of the Crowley family, beside the old Avondale Mall, someone tore the brass grave marker from the cemetery wall.

In Clayton, where replacement sewer covers cost about $60 apiece, the biggest concern is safety.

“It leaves a great big gaping hole in the roadway,” he said. “If you’ve got … someone speeding, and they hit that hole, it could be a deadly situation.”

Hard hit by scrap-metal thieves are builders, who find homes under construction vandalized, and utility companies, who find their substations ransacked. Just this week, three people were arrested outside Savannah and charged with stealing 700 pounds of copper from a Georgia Power substation. Police estimate the copper was worth $1,700.
Recycling companies themselves are sometimes burglarized for their metals.

Georgia legislators, who are considering a bill this session to stiffen penalties for scrap theft, have been told the crime can be deadly. A man was electrocuted while pulling metal components from an electric substation, after he apparently grabbed a live, high-voltage wire, said state Sen. Seth Harp (R-Columbus), the bill’s sponsor.

“They found the guy’s fingers and a burnt sweat shirt,” he said. “… I can assure you, the Georgia electric chair, in its glory, didn’t have that much oomph to it.”

Metals have become more valuable because of increased international demand. Asian countries are leading the way, seeking semiprecious metals for everything from consumer electronics to pipes and wiring in new houses. As a result, the material that metal recyclers collect, then sell, to foundries or smelting companies has surged in value over the past two years.

Copper and aluminum reached record prices last May. This year, iron is approaching that threshold, said Bryan McGannon, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

Prices vary by scrap yard, but in metro Atlanta, the salvage value for copper starts at about $1.75 a pound. Brass is about $1 to $1.50 a pound, while aluminum is much cheaper, starting about 50 cents a pound.

It may not sound like much, but a thief with a few hundred pounds of stolen loot can walk away with several hundred dollars.

The difficulty for scrap yards, McGannon said, is figuring out what is stolen among the items being brought in by peddlers.

“The challenge is that legitimate scrap and stolen materials are nearly identical,” McGannon said. “It would be like me giving you two $5 bills, then having you tell me which one is stolen.”

Georgia legislators this year are preparing to increase the penalties for anyone caught with stolen scrap metal. A vandal who damages any object that was originally worth more than $500 could be charged with a felony. The bill passed the Senate last month and is heading for a vote in the House.

A $10,000 air conditioning unit could be stolen or destroyed, Harp said, for copper that might net the thief $400 or $500.
Recognizing their role in stopping thefts, metal recyclers are trying to work with police more closely, said Maria Zack, a lobbyist for auto and scrap recyclers, and a coalition of almost 40 other utility, homebuilding or telecom companies who have an interest in the legislation.

For almost 10 years, the state has required recycling companies to get a copy of a peddler’s driver’s license. Now recyclers are forming coalitions to work with police, Zack said, and trying to stop repeat offenders.

“The recyclers actually came up with this bill,” she said. “We want to crack down on the crime.”

Frank Goulding, vice president of marketing for Newell Recycling in East Point, said with $300 million in annual sales, the company can’t afford to be cavalier about the way it conducts business.

If police issue a bulletin describing a particular metal theft, it’s immediately sent to the employees who operate the scales, and are among the first to see the incoming metals.
Beyond police alerts, some items ought to be instantly recognized as stolen, he said.

“If an individual came in with a sewer cover,” he said, “we wouldn’t buy it.”