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CBS Channel 11

Manhole Cover Theft Leads To Cut Phone & TV Lines

By Bud Gillet

August 18, 2010

Welders were locking down a manhole cover on a pedestrian walkway over the Trinity River in Dallas Wednesday when a fire cut vital data lines used by cable television companies and internet providers.

A spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation says its crews were replacing a cover stolen by scrap metal thieves. "It was the welding, actually, that we suspect ignited an old wood structure that's under utility lines at that location," says TxDOT's Mark Pettit. "We realized we needed to get a lid on there before a pedestrian was injured, and spot welding it on is a security measure to keep those lids from being taken."

The fire burned or melted several fiber optic cables that were going through the conduit, interrupting data services for individual users, and for some major corporations as well, including CBS 11 video feeds from our Dallas newsroom to the main studio in Fort Worth. News coverage was not interrupted, however.

Some lines were rerouted, and thousands of Time Warner and AT&T customers are back in business. Dallas police say manhole cover thefts are not frequent; but the metal is valuable as scrap.

"It weighs a lot," says Pettit; "A heavyweight steel item that they get a pretty good price for" He adds, "they are pretty heavy, so it takes a pretty good strong person to get those out and it takes a tool to get it out… you can't just go in with your fingers and pull those lids up." TxDOT says stolen metal can be hidden, squeezed in with other scrap and then sold by weight.

Dallas-based LeadsOnline has a system to help defeat this kind of metal theft. Though not used by the either Dallas or Fort Worth, the program is used in McKinney, Houston, San Antonio, and Lubbock. In Houston all the city's scrap metal dealers must record and photograph each scrap purchase, and detectives anywhere in the country can access the transaction.

"When the scrap metal recyclers take photographs of what comes in and what's placed on the scale, and then detectives can access that information in the event of a crime," says Leads Online president and CEO Dave Finley. "The city of Houston was having a similar problem with manhole covers, copper, a lot of city property, and they were able to really bring it to a halt."

Finley believes 99% of all local scrap metal transactions are likely above-board, especially when it comes to manhole covers, which are readily identifiable. "Most metal recyclers would not take a manhole cover."

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