Long Beach has become the latest target in a worldwide epidemic of manhole-cover larceny, authorities say. Nearly 50 of the 150-pound, cast-iron lids have been swiped from roadways and alleys in the last eight months -- with 17 taken in just the last week, authorities said Monday.
Seven disappeared Sunday night in the northwest section of the city, say administrators of the Long Beach Water Department.
"We think a team may be involved. It's two people, at least," said Ryan Alsop, governmental and public affairs director for the water department. "It's become a problem, and it's getting worse."
So far, the stolen covers have been promptly reported to officials and replaced. But two motorists whose cars were damaged when they accidentally hit an open manhole have filed claims with the city. The openings, typically 20 to 24 inches wide, lead to below-ground chambers that are 6 to 8 feet deep.
The thieves aren't only leaving holes in the street, they're also leaving a growing hole in municipal utilities' budgets.
The covers fetch about $10 apiece when sold to metal recycling companies -- they're often hidden in loads of other scrap metal -- but they can cost up to $500 each to replace.
Most Los Angeles-area scrap-metal firms will not accept a manhole cover bearing the name or initials of a public utility.
"We certainly don't buy things that are the property of the city," a worker at C & M Metals of Los Angeles said Monday.
But Alsop said the stolen lids -- taken from an area around Atlantic Avenue and Willow and Anaheim streets -- were either engraved with an "S" for sanitation or had no markings at all.
Replacements are being ordered with the words "Long Beach Water Department" or the agency's initials stamped on them, he said.
A flourishing market for recycled metals in China and other developing nations and the soaring price of metal worldwide are blamed for triggering what has been described as a rash of manhole cover thefts.
An industrial area of East London had 200 covers and grates stolen in one brief period. An estimated 20,000 covers are stolen every year in Beijing. About 10,000 were stolen in Bogota, Colombia, until a 6-year-old boy was killed in late 2005 when he fell into an open manhole and a crackdown on the thievery was launched.
In this country, the scale of the theft is lower, but still troublesome. Chicago lost 200 in November, with 40 reportedly taken in a single day. About 500 disappeared last year from Philadelphia. Seventy-five lids have turned up missing in Greensboro, N.C. The arrest of an Indianapolis man ended a cover theft spree there that left more than 30 missing in late January.
Although Los Angeles has experienced the theft of copper wiring from street lighting fixtures, the city's Department of Water and Power hasn't seen an outbreak of manhole cover thefts.
"We've had no reports of theft. A lot of ours are bolted down," said Terry Schneider, a DWP spokeswoman.
Long Beach's Alsop said his department was considering bolting its covers or using special locks. The locks cost about $25 apiece.
Other remedies include welding covers down, which causes problems for repair crews that must frequently enter underground vaults, or using plastic covers.
Scrap metal thieves have shown no interest in the plastic ones, which generally use composite materials such as fiberglass, resin or high-density polyurethane. Plastic covers can support up to 60 tons, although there have been reports of some slipping out of place when vehicles have rolled over them at an angle.
At least one Chinese manufacturer is attempting to cash in on the cast-iron cover heists.
The Hunan Timelion Composite Materials Co. is advertising "burglar-proof, artistic manhole covers" that can be customized with local logos in "perfect design and rich colors."