November 2008, Vol. 20, No.11

A Hole New Problem

A Hole New Problem

Aug. 13 and 14 are days that will live in infamy in Cleveland — or at least for the city’s Water Pollution Control department. During that single 2-day period, thieves stole an astonishing 106 catch-basin covers — that’s 5.4 Mg (6 ton) of cast iron — from the city’s streets, according to Tom Marsales, the department’s deputy commissioner.

Cleveland isn’t the only U.S. city rocked by this latest form of crime spree. Utilities in cities nationwide are reporting a rise in theft. Manhole covers, sewer grates, water meters — anything made of metal that’s not nailed down — are now a target. Philadelphia has lost about 2000 inlet covers so far this year. More than 80 sewer lids and eight fire hydrants went missing in Long Beach, Calif., in 2008; none was stolen the year before. Flint, Mich., has had to replace 400 manhole covers and grates this year.

It was the largest scrap-metal heist the department had ever seen. Of course, until this year, it hadn’t seen many.

“Cleveland had very few problems like this in 2007,” said Marsales. “Beginning this year, the numbers have picked up dramatically — sometimes, as many as five covers a day. But this one just left us scratching our heads.”

It also left them digging deep in their pockets. It cost the city approximately $20,000 to restore the missing covers, or roughly 10 times more than the crooks netted when they later sold them for scrap, Marsales estimated.

Cleveland isn’t the only U.S. city rocked by this latest form of crime spree. Utilities in cities nationwide are reporting a rise in theft. Manhole covers, sewer grates, water meters — anything made of metal that’s not nailed down — are now a target. Philadelphia has lost about 2000 inlet covers so far this year. More than 80 sewer lids and eight fire hydrants went missing in Long Beach, Calif., in 2008; none was stolen the year before. Flint, Mich., has had to replace 400 manhole covers and grates this year.

With labor and material costs running as much as $500 to replace each cover, the thefts are putting a strain on some utility budgets. But it’s not only the cost of replacing the stolen goods that has these cities concerned.

Some have reported incidents of children, adults — even cars — falling into the holes left by the missing covers and grates. Among the most notable was the case of a former Pennsylvania medical student who fell 6 m (20 ft) through an open manhole and suffered a broken back and other serious injuries after a homeless person removed its 113-kg (250-lb) cover illegally. A Philadelphia jury awarded the 30-year-old $18 million, to be paid by Trigen Philadelphia Energy Corp., the company that operates the steam system under Philadelphia’s streets.

To Catch a Thief
Behind the epidemic, utility officials say, is a combination of soaring scrap-metal prices and hard economic times.

How lucrative has the business become? Thanks to growing demand in China, India, and other developing countries, scrap metal that sold for $38.50/Mg ($35/ton) only a few years ago now fetches anywhere from $330 to $385/Mg ($300 to $425/ton). For an average-size manhole lid, this translates into a payment of $10 to $20, said Ryan Alsop, director of government and public affairs for the Long Beach Water Department.

That’s only a fraction of an item’s replacement cost. But it is apparently worth it to the thieves, many of whom are thought to be homeless or addicted to drugs.

“Just today, our crew chief was riding down the street and saw a shopping cart with two inlet covers that had just been reported missing,” noted Drew Mihocko, chief engineer for the City of Philadelphia’s Collector System. The men pushing the cart ran off as soon as they were spotted, leaving the stolen goods behind.

Earlier this year in Cleveland, Marsales said, police arrested a man who had just purchased crack cocaine using the proceeds from a sale of scrap metal. How did they know? His truck was still weighed down with manhole covers, prohibiting him from making a fast getaway.

Catching a thief in the act, however, is rare. Much of the pilfering takes place in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, closed businesses, industrial sites, and other sparsely populated areas.

In some cases, however, the thefts are taking place in broad daylight. Earlier this year, for example, eight manhole covers were pried from busy street corners in Long Beach. Alsop thinks he knows how it happened. “These thieves were driving up to the corner, looking and acting like they knew what they’re doing,” he said. “No one passing by gave it a second thought.”

Thieves also have learned which items can be more easily purloined. “Here in Philadelphia, they’re not stealing manhole lids so much as inlet covers, which are smaller and lighter,” Mihocko said.

Marsales said Cleveland has had a similar experience. “The manhole covers we use weigh 207 pounds [94 kg],” he said. Sewer grates, by comparison, range in weight from 32 to 81 kg (70 to 179 lb). “The grates are just easier to steal,” Marsales explained. “They have something you can grab on to.”

Communities that report fewer problems with theft, in fact, credit their choice and location of manhole covers as important reasons why.

In Phoenix, where 22 manhole covers went missing in its most recent fiscal year, ordinances now require any new manholes to be located on streets — not alleys or easements, where it is easier to steal them — according to Ken Kroski, public information officer for the city’s Water Services Department.

Chuck Winsor, manager of the O&M Collection Facilities Division of the Orange County (Calif.) Sanitation District, said the county’s large, 914-mm, 113-kg (36-in, 250-lb) lids are a deterrent to theft. Most cities, he said, use 610-mm (24-in) diameter lids that weigh closer to 45 kg (100 lb).

Winsor said the county’s sewer lids also have the letters OCSD [Orange County Sanitation District] cast in large letters on them. “That sends a pretty clear message to a foundry or junk yard that they’re looking at stolen property,” he said. 

Cashing In
Of course, one might think a reputable business would be suspicious of any manhole cover that a seller might bring in, regardless of what was printed on it. Most communities have laws in place that make it illegal for junk yards and scrap-metal dealers to purchase materials that can be identified as public property.

Still, someone is buying these stolen goods, and many utility professionals say that this is where the problem can best be addressed. “You can steal anything,” said Marsales. “But without a place to sell it, it’s worthless.”

This is why, Marsales said, his department’s first steps were to request additional surveillance by Cleveland police and to make sure the city was enforcing ordinances that require these businesses to maintain records of sellers’ driver’s licenses, license plate numbers, and trucks’ load contents.

One problem, Marsales said, is that thieves may be taking their stolen goods to other areas where enforcement isn’t as strict. Thieves also have been known to take a sledgehammer to city property, making it more difficult to identify, or to hide it in loads of other scrap material.

Another problem is scrap-metal businesses that simply find it hard to say no. “Here in Cleveland, a scrap yard might pay $100 a ton [$110/kg] to a seller and then turn around and sell it for $300 a ton [$330/kg],” Marsales said. “There’s money for them to make in these transactions, too.”

Fighting Back
In addition to working with local law enforcement, many utilities are fighting back by making their materials tougher to steal.

Philadelphia, for example, now has a two-person crew devoted to chaining down inlet covers, with highest priority given to those that already have been stolen and replaced. Will the city get to them all? “Probably not,” Mihocko said. “We’ve got 50,000 of them. “

Philadelphia has also looked at installing manhole covers made of composite materials, such as fiberglass, resin, or high-density polyurethane, which have minimal resale value.

“They look nice,” Mihocko said. “But they require a completely different frame than the ones we use now.” Rather than retrofitting older manholes, the city is now considering composite materials for new construction.

The Drain Commission in Genesee County, Mich., which includes Flint, dramatically reduced theft by outfitting its 8000 manhole covers with a one-of-a-kind bolt that can be turned only by special wrenches owned by the county. In Cleveland, the Water Pollution Control Department has asked the Street Department to tar the manholes in place.

Manufacturers also are getting into the act with solutions. A Fort Pierce, Fla., company is offering a product called Manhole Guard that provides a temporary barrier until a new manhole can be installed. Hadronex (Escondido, Calif.) takes a more high-tech approach. Its SmartCovers provide continuous real-time electronic monitoring of manholes. If a cover is stolen, an alarm is triggered, and the owner or police can be notified in seconds.

Perhaps the greatest deterrent to would-be thieves, some officials say, doesn’t require bolts, chains, or electronics of any kind. It’s making people aware of the problem.

“There is one school of thought that says publicizing these thefts only make them worse,” Alsop said. “Of course, we don’t want to give any would-be criminals any ideas. But we’ve found that letting the public know the problem exists makes everyone more vigilant.”

Working in collaboration with the police department, the Long Beach Water Department in recent months has undertaken a campaign to alert both citizens and scrap-metal businesses to its theft problems. Following extensive media coverage in the Long Beach area, an interesting thing happened, Alsop said: The thefts slowed down remarkably.

“We patrolled the streets,” Alsop said. “We alerted citizens to the fact that this is a problem. We’ve remained engaged with scrap yards up and down the state. And the crooks, it seems, are getting the message.”

Mary Bufe, WE&T 



Eco-Conscious Travel
What effect does global tourism have on the water environment?

Journalist and author Elizabeth Becker recently spent a semester at Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass.) examining media coverage of the tourism industry. She found many disturbing trends, including threats to the environment — in particular, water and sanitation. But no one was writing about it.

“In the process, I discovered that water is a big issue,” Becker said.

After finding that media coverage of the issue is practically nonexistent, Becker has taken it upon herself to sound the alarm about the environmental problems that tourism can cause.

A Growing Problem
According to the U.N. World Tourism Organization (Madrid, Spain), international tourist travel grew by 6% in 2007 to reach 898 million arrivals, or approximately 52 million more arrivals than in 2006.

“In order to attract these tourists,” Becker said, “a local country will divert all the water and electricity … to the tourist hotels and the tourist regions without thinking of the implications.” In some instances, local residents no longer have access to these resources, which might mean that a family does not have enough water, Becker explained. Consequently, water tables are drawn down, and the quality of water provided is jeopardized.

“You have questions of whether or not the system can bring enough healthy water to both the tourists as well as the locals,” Becker said. The question of whether local systems can handle the additional refuse properly is another issue. “This is not a well-thought-through issue,” Becker said.

“Besides drinkable water, sewage is a big issue,” Becker said. Travelers often come from wealthier countries and require a higher level of sanitation than what many countries are ready to provide. According to Becker, countries pursuing tourism should look at the water system, determine how much drinkable water is available, and determine how to dispose of the refuse properly.

“With a limited amount of water, it’s a cascading effect if you let the tourist establishments take away that water,” Becker said. By diverting water to tourism areas, there is less water for towns, farmers, and the surrounding habitat.

In addition, cultural monuments are being eroded by the large amounts of tourist traffic and damaged by pollution, Becker said. An example can be found at the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, where, as Becker explains in her Sept. 2 article in The Washington Post (“Don’t Go There”), the temples are in danger of sinking as the 856,000 tourists who visit Siem Reap, the nearby town of 85,000 people, drain the water table.

Coastal areas are also degraded, Becker said, because as coastal forests and swamps are removed for resorts, golf courses, and hotels, the beaches no longer have protection from storms, and the local water source no longer has that natural filter for pollutants and sediments. Coastal areas, including those in the Mediterranean and Caribbean have seen the most adverse affects, she noted.

“I don’t think the world can sustain the amount of travel we do now,” Becker said.

Becker implored that the travel industry should be taken seriously and managed as a whole. “Instead of just looking at golf courses, look at the whole resort, the whole package of what your state or your country is doing in terms of taking away those water resources,” she advised. She also asks that water experts and engineers “put tourism on their to-do list.” All aspects of the tourism industry, from government and tourism bureaus to nonprofits and water-planning professionals, should work together in a holistic tourism planning effort to manage resources and protect local areas, she said.

Sustainable Travel
As social and environmental stresses from tourism multiply, a new movement has been taking shape to combat the negative impacts. This new type of tourism has many different labels, including “sustainable,” “green,” “ecological,” “ecotourism,” and even “geotourism,” the latter coined by the National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations (Washington, D.C.). All have one thing in common — the goal of protecting the environment and local culture as much as possible while helping the local areas to prosper from the revenue generated.

Sustainable Tourism Criteria
The U.N. World Tourism Organization, formed in 1970, provides a variety of resources to help develop a sustainable tourism industry. The organization recently released a list of global sustainable tourism criteria that cover effective sustainability planning, maximizing social and economic benefits, enhancing cultural heritage, and reducing negative impacts to the environment.

“Sustainability is just like the old business adage: ‘You don’t encroach on the principal, you live off the interest,’” said U.N. Foundation founder and chairman Ted Turner. “Unfortunately, up to this point, the travel industry and tourists haven’t had a common framework to let them know if they’re really living up to that maxim,” he said. “But the … criteria will change that.”

Geotourism
The National Geographic Center is attempting to take sustainable tourism to another level with its geotourism concept. The term is defined as “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place — its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.” Geotourism adds the idea of enhancing the geographical character of a location to the preservation ideals of sustainable tourism.

The center has a Geotourism Charter, which is a statement of principles for governments and organizations to sign as a first step toward adopting a geotourism strategy. The center will help governments and organizations develop and adhere to personalized strategies. In the United States, Vermont, Arizona, and Rhode Island have signed the charter. In addition, the center provides information and resources for communities, travel professionals, and travelers to promote geotourism.

Airline Offsets
Many tourism businesses have chosen to offer sustainable options. One example is the Moroccan airline Atlas-blue, which offers passengers the option of contributing money to ActionCarbone (Paris), a nonprofit organization that funds carbon-offsetting projects. Contributions currently go toward producing coal from agricultural residue or invasive plants in Senegal; financing biogas tanks in China; promoting the use of solar cookers in Bolivia, Peru, and Chile; equipping local populations with biogas tanks in India; and manufacturing and distributing more-efficient cooking ovens in Cambodia.

The optional contribution appears when choosing a flight and is calculated based on the amount of carbon dioxide generated by the flight. Contributions vary from about €11.87 ($16.19 at press time) for one of the airline’s longer flights that generates 741.69 kg of carbon dioxide to €5.98 ($8.16) for one of the airline’s shorter flights that generates 373.46 kg of carbon dioxide.

Holistic Hotels
Resorts and hotels also have begun to promote their sustainable practices, such as low-flow showerheads and faucets, composting and recycling, rainwater collection systems, renewable energy sources, and local hiring. Some destinations combine many of these elements to qualify as sustainable destinations.

For example, Barbara Walker and Shireen Aga, owners of Hotel Mocking Bird Hill in Port Antonio, Jamaica, have taken a holistic environmental approach to hospitality. Aga explained that because environmentally friendly measures require a higher startup cost, the hotel tries to keep its costs to a minimum, often by using creativity to reduce, reuse, and recycle their supplies.

The 2.6-ha (6.5-ac) property includes a certified bio-organic garden, according to the hotel Web site. Kitchen leftovers are used to create compost, which is mixed with manure supplied by local farmers. Compost is used to fertilize the garden and create terraces on the hillside to stem soil erosion. Kitchen scraps also are fed to the dogs residing on the property or given to a local farmer to feed his pigs.

Aluminum cans are donated to the Portland AIDS Committee (Kingston, Jamaica), and printer cartridges are returned to the supplier. Egg cartons are used as insulation for the food- and wine-storage rooms. Glass bottles are used as lamps and donated to the local beekeepers association. Paper is collected, shredded, and given to a local women’s community paper-making project.

Notices encourage guests to turn off lights and fans when leaving the rooms and turn off faucets whenever possible. Motion detectors regulate all security lighting, and clothes are dried on a washing line. Sun ovens are used to bake bread and roast meats whenever possible.

The pool pump is operated on solar power, and the owners are in the process of converting four rooms and two offices to solar power. In the future, Aga hopes the hotel can expand its solar power and obtain a solar-powered water pump.

The hotel has rainwater storage facilities that hold 160,000 L of water. Water storage recently was increased by 32,000 L and should be increased by an additional 32,000 L by the end of the year, according to Aga.

In addition, the hotel has an onsite anaerobic wastewater treatment facility and hopes to install a graywater system that uses ultraviolet light to purify the water for the garden. The hotel has low-flow toilets, as well as aerators and water savers on all faucets.

In addition to encouraging guests to contribute to offsetting carbon dioxide emissions generated from their travel, the hotel makes contributions to Sustainable Travel International (Boulder, Colo.) to offset the hotel’s carbon dioxide emissions. Guest contributions go to the Jamaica Conservation Development Trust tree-planting program.

Aga hopes her hotel will set an example and demonstrate to others that it is possible to use resources responsibly and run an economically sound business.

“We believe that it is vital that business be part of the solution,” she said. “And tourism in particularly is one of the best forms of business that creatively preserves the environment while improving the economic viability and well-being of a community.”

Jennifer Fulcher, WE&T