Scavengers are stealing manhole covers at alarming rate, leaving gaping holes in streets, sidewalks

Manhole/Sewer grateDetroiters who rely on scrap metal for survival or extra cash are turning to manhole covers and sewer grates at an unprecedented clip, leaving gaping holes on sidewalks and neighborhood streets, city officials told Motor City Muckraker.

Although manhole theft is nothing new in Detroit, the heists are multiplying as scavengers run out of more easily accessible scrap metal, police and the city’s Department of Water and Sewerage said.

In the past two years, thousands of sewer and manhole covers have been stolen, creating hazards for unsuspecting pedestrians, motorists and bicyclists. The cast iron lids, which weigh between 50 and 240 pounds, fetch scrappers between $10 and $25 at local scrap yards, police said.

A Detroiter fell into this open sewer hole on April 21.
A Detroiter fell into this open sewer hole on April 21.

Worsening the danger, the city isn’t replacing a vast majority of the heavy disks, which cost up to $500 to replace. At most, a city crew will cover the hole with an orange cone or hazard sign.

On April 21, a man in his 50s was walking down 32nd Street in the dark on the west side when he fell into an open sewer hole. He managed to cling on with his elbows until firefighters rescued him. Last year, Jerome Edwards, 60, died after falling headfirst into an uncovered manhole on West Grand Blvd.

“People don’t care anymore. They’ll do anything for a quick buck,” said Mary Barnes, whose east-side neighborhood is riddled with open manholes, which her son covered with tires he found in an abandoned lot.

Some scavengers are taking advantage of the exposed holes, climbing down inlets in search of metal from electrical wiring. A 55-year-old Detroiter was killed on April 24 while he was scouring for metal beneath the surface in the area of East Grand Blvd. and Chene. An autopsy is pending to determine the cause of death.

On a relatively busy sidewalk at Gratiot and Meldrum, a manhole has been exposed for six months. The city placed an orange cone atop the hole but now it’s gone.

manhole 20130425_4634Stealing a manhole cover isn’t easy. It often requires at least two people, a truck and some steely nerves. Because it can be a relatively timely task, thieves often masquerade as construction workers.

The city installed anti-theft manhole covers for some parts of downtown when it was announced Detroit would host the 2006 Super Bowl. But the covers are too costly for a city that is trying to avoid bankruptcy.

Got tips or suggestions? Contact Steve at sneavling@gmail.com. 

Steve Neavling, who lives on the city’s east side, is an investigative journalist, a freelance reporter for Reuters and former city hall reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Neavling explores corruption, Detroit’s unsung heroes and the underbelly of an oft-misunderstood city.

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Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.