They rest quietly in the street, sturdy and virtually invisible, protecting people and vehicles from the horrors below.
Throughout Red Deer, like most urban areas in the world, cast-iron manhole covers form a vital part of the utility network. Most commonly, they provide access to pipes carrying either sewage or storm water.
They’re difficult to remove, extremely heavy and nearly impossible to sell.
So it’s a mystery to city engineer Ron Wardner why people sometimes want to play with them or why anyone would even think about stealing them. The iron from which they’re made has a much lower value than steel.
Wardner said his most recent report of a manhole cover being removed occurred on Saturday at the overpass at 60th Street and 59th Avenue. Crews found the cover at the side of the hole and placed it back in its frame.
There’s an obvious hazard if a manhole is left open, said Wardner, who construction and maintenance superintendent for the Environmental Services Department. In Red Deer, manholes average about 2.75 metres deep.
Aside from the serious injuries a person could suffer from falling into that depth of hole, there is a possibility of toxic gases and of oxygen deprivation, creating a very dangerous environment for people who are not wearing the proper equipment, he said.
Vehicles can also suffer heavy damage if they hit an open hole.
“I’m touching real solid, hard wood here. We haven’t had any manhole covers stolen here,” said Wardner, who has been with the city for nearly 30 years.
“We have on occasion had kids who have got the manhole cover off the frame. On some of the hills, we have had problems where manhole covers have been removed and then rolled down the hill.”
Environmental Services has identified a number of sites where manhole covers are particularly vulnerable to vandalism. In those cases, the city has a mechanism for locking them down. However, bolting them to the frame is not a desirable option, said Wardner.
Besides the additional effort required to remove the cover, bolts can rust and seize over time, making the job even more difficult.
Shandy Vida, president of HMI Industries — formerly Harper’s Metals — said he has not yet seen anyone attempt to bring manhole covers to his yard for sale as salvage. All City of Red Deer property would bear its stamp, making it easy to identify, said Vida.
The city disposes of old fire hydrants and other metal in one of its own bins, which HMI picks up and bring to is yard. Any city property that finds its way to HMI by other means is obviously stolen, said Vida.
His company uses surveillance video on the scales and at the desk where people are paid for their salvage. HMI is always willing to give pictures to the police to help in an investigation, he said.
“If we hear about material that’s been stolen and it rings a bill, we go back and check the pictures and give them to the RCMP.”
Theft of metals, particularly copper, peaked last at this year when salvage rates were extremely high. Vida said he had heard reports that manhole covers were being stolen in part of the United States, causing all kinds of problems.