Someone's been making off with the big industrial batteries that provide backup power at traffic signals in Baltimore, and now the thefts are being investigated by the city inspector general's office, which looks into allegations of waste, fraud and abuse in municipal government.
A representative of the battery's manufacturer said the thieves most likely would have tried to sell the 54-pound batteries as scrap for their lead content.
Russell Conelley, an agent in the IG's office, confirmed in an interview with The Baltimore Sun that it is investigating battery thefts reported to have occurred along Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore and Wilkens Avenue in Southwest Baltimore. He said he's been told that each signal has three batteries designed to kick in during a power outage.
Conelley would not say how many batteries disappeared or where. "We like to get a chance to take a thorough look at things before everything is out there," he said. "Once it's all out there, you get different answers from people."
The inspector general's office asked the Police Department to take the unusual step of withholding police reports, according to police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. He agreed to read portions of a report that showed the city alerted police March 4, with the time of the thefts listed as sometime over the previous four months. He said one report noted the absence of any sign of forced entry. (Conelley later said the IG's office had no objection to the release of the police reports.)
Transportation Department spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. But emails The Sun received through a public records request show top agency officials discussing the thefts.
On March 22, Jim Harkness, chief of the Transportation Department's traffic division, sent a list of all employees in the city's traffic signal shop to the acting inspector general, Cassandra Henson.
"We are working to harden the traffic signal backup battery units," Harkness told her in an email. "So far, all 19 locations with bbu have been secured with locks."
He added that city crews planned to install alarms that would sound if someone opened the door of the metal cabinet containing the batteries. Harkness provided a similar update to Frank Murphy, the acting transportation director.
In another email, Harkness asked a colleague to check with police for any video footage that might have shown someone taking the batteries.
The batteries are sold by East Penn Manufacturing Co. of Lyon Station, Pa., and carry a list price of $428, said Christian Chupak, a customer service representative. He said he doesn't know what else those batteries would be used for, but they contain a "significant amount" of lead, which can be separated from the plastic and other components, then reused.
"If you brought it to our smelter, we'd give you about $25," Chupak said. "It's not really that great, but say you got 50 of them — you're looking at over $1,000. It all depends on how many they have."
The backup batteries are similar to other kinds of lead-acid batteries, including those used in cars and trucks. Battery thefts have made headlines around the country over the past couple of years, although the price of lead has been dropping.
While Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police report no increase in such thefts, police in Baltimore County have seen an uptick in truck battery thefts, particularly in the Wilkens Precinct in the southwestern part of the county.
"We think it's connected to the desire to recycle the lead, just as scrap metal thefts are driven by the price someone can get for the material that they recycle," police spokeswoman Cpl. Cathy Batton said.
Officials say lead is covered by a state law requiring scrap yards to keep electronic sales records and put some items "on hold" to give police a chance to find stolen goods. But critics say the law has gaps, including an exemption in the reporting requirement for businesses that regularly contract with scrap dealers.
Metal thefts have long plagued Baltimore, from copper wiring and roof gutters to 30-foot aluminum light poles. Six years ago, a pair of 300-pound bronze doors each valued at $30,000 were stolen off the hinges at the downtown Baltimore Circuit Courthouse.