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Officials hope new design thwarts manhole cover thefts

Metal from objects once sold at high price

POSTED: October 23, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

People recently have been stealing steel manhole covers like this one.

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Thieves always will steal valuable metals like gold and silver, but you know the economy stinks when thieves start taking steel manhole covers.

After a string of thefts during the past six months, Hall County is going to begin using locking manhole covers with an identifying logo to help prevent thefts.

Public Works Director Ken Rearden said he believes people steal manhole covers off of neighborhood storm drains to sell for scrap metal.

"It’s a nationwide problem," said county engineer Kevin McInturff, who said the price of steel is high right now, along with other nonprecious metals, such as copper.

Rearden said people typically are stealing one to two of the manhole covers off storm drains in neighborhoods.

"We had some sporadic, but the biggest subdivision they were taken from was Lathem Creek Manor," Rearden said. "We had approximately 10 to 12 of them taken out of there."

McInturff said the manhole covers on the sides of the road on storm drains are the ones that are being stolen because they are 30 to 40 pounds, much lighter than the ones in the middle of the road.

Public Works communicated with the sheriff’s office and decided that marking the manhole covers would make them more difficult to sell.

"They said that would greatly help enforcing. If they went to a scrap metal dealer and had the evidence with the emblem on there, then they would obviously know where it came from. Otherwise, they’re all just universal, they could come from anywhere," McInturff said.

Col. Jeff Strickland of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office said he believes marking the manhole covers will take away the incentive to steal them because recyclers would not take something they know is county property.

"It would hamper the thieves from converting them to cash at recyclers because the recyclers would immediately recognize they belong to Hall County," Strickland said.

Strickland said metal thefts have been a problem this year, and metal construction supplies have been taken from vacant buildings as well.

"We’ve experienced thefts from vacant buildings where a thief will go in and strip out the plumbing pipes and copper wires. We’ve also had several occasions where people would steal the outside air-conditioning units from vacant residences," Strickland said. "It’s very hard for us to identify them because they can cut them into very small pieces, and they have no identifying marks on them."

But the thefts could soon taper off. Prices have declined in recent months, said Bob Garino, commodities director for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. in Washington, at the beginning of October.

"We’re seeing some lows that we really haven’t seen in quite some time," he said.

Prices had skyrocketed this summer to five-year highs, resulting in metal thefts across the country. But those prices have dropped sharply.

As of Sunday, Chattanooga Scrap Metal in Chattanooga, Tenn., was buying mixed scrap steel for only $2.50 per 100 pounds, down from a recent level of $8 per 100 pounds.

That would make the 30 to 40 pound manhole cover worth only about 75 cents instead of $2.40 it would have been worth previously. Of course, scrap metals usually are sold by the truckload, not one manhole cover at a time.

"Our crews would have that special key with their trucks," Rearden said.

The new manhole covers are available now and will be phased in as necessary.

The logo on the new manhole covers will not only identify them as Hall County property but remind people not to dump waste into storm drains.

"It actually has Hall County and also has a little logo that says ‘goes to rivers and streams, do not dump.’ It’s a pretty neat design that’s an educational tool as well," Rearden said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.



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