Bulky manhole covers yield thieves little payoff

Despite weighing more than 100 pounds, manhole covers are worth less than $10 to Baltimore scrap metal dealers — if they are even willing to take them.

Even so, the city discovered 17 of them missing Tuesday in Baltimore's largest manhole-cover theft in four years, the Department of Public Works said.

Kurt Kocher, the department's spokesman, suspected that whoever took them was looking to sell them as scrap.

"What else could you do with it?" Kocher said.

The cast-iron covers were stolen from patches of grass on East Lombard Street near an industrial area. Kocher described the brief absence of the covers as "extremely dangerous" and said someone could have easily been injured or killed. The covers were replaced immediately, at a total cost of $1,800.

"It's a small cost to us, but it's more of a hazard," Kocher said. "For all the work involved [for the thieves], it's just not worth it."

The material the manholes are made of would fetch $7.25 per 100 pounds, said Jeff Harmon Jr., a shipping clerk at United Iron and Metal Co., a Baltimore scrap metal company. Mike Decker, owner of Decker Salvage in the city, said his firm would pay a mere $6, making the theft even more puzzling.

"We get people in here almost every two days with manhole covers," Harmon said. "We can't take them unless they have papers, so we turn them away."

Manhole covers are far from the only thing being taken from the streets of Baltimore. Theft of scrap metal is a common problem in the city and the surrounding areas. Thieves have been known to pilfer nearly anything they can get their hands on — from guard rails along the Northern Parkway bridge to wiring underneath the light rail tracks.

"It's slowed down quite a lot, but I see it every three days or so, aluminum light poles." Harmon said. "I've seen those a lot — trucks full of them. People will try all sorts of things to make a buck here."

Anthony Gugliemi, a spokesman for the city Police Department, said reports of manhole-cover thefts are "not frequent," but Kocher described thefts as "not rare at all."

Metal theft has been so ubiquitous that Baltimore County enacted legislation in November requiring all metal companies to be licensed and keep daily records of each transaction in an effort to deter thievery. In the city, people trying to sell public property like manhole covers are required to present papers showing they are licensed to dispose of them.

In the city, drug addicts and other criminals have long been blamed for pilfering materials from houses under construction, trying to cash in on copper piping and other items. Police have reported more of these crimes as metal prices rise.

A city employee is under investigation in the April theft of manhole covers. Bureau of Water and Wastewater employee Anthony Green is under suspension during the investigation.

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