Place yourself on a city stoop during a recent smoldering summer evening. Perhaps you are taking your mind off of the heat with a book or cool glass of wine, when you notice a white, windowless van screeching past. Maybe you see two men, wearing what look like uniforms, park and get out of the car brandishing a crowbar.
As you continue to watch, you might observe the pair prying the cover from one of the thousands of manholes throughout the city. You may see them hoist the massive cast-iron disc on its side and roll it over into the van. As quickly as they arrived on your street, the duo is gone along with the manhole cover, and while you might not immediately realize this, you just witnessed a crime.
To most residents, the theft of one of the city’s manhole covers might seem like a lot of trouble for a little reward; the metal sells at scrap yards for around $30. But, due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is the city’s still struggling economy, the thefts of the covers along with other recyclable materials such as discarded refrigerators, air conditioners, paper and cardboard, have become increasingly common.
Together, these thefts have been costing the city millions of dollars in replacement costs and lost revenue while posing various safety hazards to residents.
In an effort to stem the tide of these costly thefts, legislators and city officials met recently to consider more stringent penalties for those caught stealing manhole covers and recyclable metals and papers that would otherwise be picked up by the city’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) for sale to approved dealers.
Another bill would punish appliance and paper thieves with fines of up to $5,000 and vehicle impoundment. The current penalty is $2,000 and vehicle impoundment.
Most manholes are merely access points that enable utility personnel to service parts of the city’s infrastructure such as electric, gas and water connections.
Allan Drury, a spokesman for Con Edison, said the utility usually sees only a few manhole cover thefts a year, but between early March and May, there were about 40 covers stolen in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
Drury added that the covers are not easy to steal and weigh as much as 300 pounds. Con Ed uses specially designed hooks to lift the covers, but witnesses have seen thieves using car jacks to steal them. “The cast-iron covers cost about $200 to replace, but our main concern with thefts is public safety. Stealing covers is a serious crime because it puts pedestrians and motorists at risk,” he said.
“We believe those who steal manhole covers usually sell them for scrap metal,” Drury said. “We reach out to scrap metal dealers and urge them to call us and the police if they are offered a cover with a Con Edison logo.”
“It’s a shame that people are risking innocent lives for a quick buck. The desperate act of stealing manhole covers and certain recyclable materials is disruptive to our city’s physical environment and creates dangerous conditions where pedestrians and motorists are forced to fear for their safety,” said Councilman Robert Jackson, who represents northern Manhattan and sits on the five-member committee on sanitation and solid waste.
“As legislators, we need to come together and find real solutions to deter perpetrators from committing these crimes before the problem becomes epidemic,” Jackson added.
Con Edison has reported that witnesses in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx had described thieves dressed in utility apparel, but without any Con Edison or other utility markings, prying open manhole covers, loading the covers onto pickup trucks, and then driving away.
He added that despite the incidents of open manholes, there were no known cases of people being injured by falling into open manholes.
Drury said that when a cover is reported missing, it is replaced right away. “We secure the area until we are able to place a new cover on the hole.”
In his testimony before the city council committee on sanitation and solid waste, NYC Department of Environment Protection (DEP) Deputy Commissioner James Waters did not mince words when describing the seriousness of the problem of the manhole cover thefts.
Waters said the total number of missing DEP manhole covers in 2009 was 1,608; in 2010, 1,378; in 2011, 1,498. “Those numbers include covers on manholes that lead to sewer infrastructure, as well as covers on manholes that lead to potable water infrastructure,” Waters told the committee.
Police did not respond to requests seeking details on the investigation. News reports, however, said that a man arrested in Brooklyn, back in May, was reportedly stealing manhole covers to support a crack cocaine and heroin drug habit.
A clerk at Timpson Scrap Metal in the Bronx said that the going rate for a cast-iron manhole cover would be anywhere from $21 to $30 based on their rate of seven cents per pound for covers that weigh around 300 pounds.
“But we don’t take manhole covers,” said the man, who would not give his name. “Selling manhole covers is illegal. If we get someone who wants to sell one, we have to call the police and report them.”
In fact, one of the provisions of the newly introduced council legislation would be a rewards campaign to encourage citizens to report thefts of recyclable metals.
“The bill would specifically target those profiting from the theft of these materials, an illegal industry that presents a significant threat to public safety,” said Council Member Letitia James, chair of the sanitation and solid waste committee. “Our legislation will give law enforcement an extra tool to combat this theft and ensure that violators are punished both civilly and criminally to the greatest extent of the law.”
According to Kathy Dawkins, a spokesperson for DSNY, under Local Law 50, the Department of Sanitation’s Enforcement Division can take any vehicle used in the theft of recyclables.
In 2011, 53 vehicles were impounded by the agency in Manhattan, 358 citywide; while this year 185 vehicles were impounded in Manhattan and 530 citywide.
“Generally, when the economy is slow there is increase in the theft of recyclables as evident in the number of vehicles the department has impounded,” Dawkins said.
Ron Gonen, a deputy commissioner of recycling for the DSNY, testified at the council hearing that the poaching of recyclables was both a NYC and a national problem that has cost the city and reputable recyclers millions of dollars in lost revenue.
Gonen testified that the poaching of recyclables has seriously affected the city’s own recycling program and that the thefts cost the city income from the sale of its own recyclables. “Scrap iron and steel can be sold for up to $250 per ton, over four times the price from a decade ago, and bundled paper or cardboard can net $230 per ton, more than 32 times the amount the city receives under contracts with its own processing vendors,” Gonen said before the council.
Moreover, Gonen said that today’s thieves are smarter than ever. “Those who poach have grown more sophisticated, and a lucrative, organized underground market has emerged,” Gonen pointed out. “Poachers organize their activity around Department route schedules and often employ multiple individuals using a single van or truck.”
He added that since Local Law 50’s enactment in 2007, the agency has issued more than 1,800 notices of violation and impounded nearly 1,200 vehicles involved in the removal of recyclables from curbsides.
Gonen also pointed out that people removing bulk metal items such as refrigerators and air conditioners containing CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons are endangering people’s health by risking the release of the chemicals into the air.
A spokesperson for the council said the bills are still under review and will likely be further amended by members of the sanitation committee as well as city agency officials before being presented to the full council for a vote. No timeframe was given.
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