Thieves targeting metal storm drain grates

City spent $5,000 to replace them since late September

By Paul Suarez, Columbian web producer

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Metal thieves have snatched 14 grates in Vancouver city limits since late September, according to Loretta Callahan, spokeswoman for Vancouver Public Works. It's spent more than $5,000 replacing grates after the recent string of thefts.

Vancouver police and public works crews are now keeping an eye out for suspicious activity around storm drains. The problem is "an ongoing issue" but it picked up a bit in October, she said. Most grates went missing on weekends in areas of west Vancouver.

According to Callahan, some of those grates are old and not the standard 20-by-24 inch size. In those cases, public works will need to pay more to have replacements made.

"(Grates are) expensive because they're non-standard," Callahan said.

Stormwater grates are not stamped as city property but have an "obvious pattern" that would make them recognizable compared with other grates, Callahan said.

The problem popped up early this year. Public works crews did a bit of reconnaissance work in January and recovered several stolen grates from smaller scrap metal buyers.

This time around, public works crews have talked with local metal recyclers to make them aware of the issue. Crews are also welding chains to the grate and basin to make it a little more difficult for thieves, Callahan said. She noted that crews are very busy with other things -- think clogged drains, standing water, etc. -- this time of year.

Jeff Mize, spokesman for Clark County Public Works, said the county has not seen a recent uptick in storm drain grates being stolen in unincorporated areas.

Callahan said the grates in the city are made of galvanized steel and iron.

An Oregon law that took effect in 2010 made it harder for thieves to metal. Before the law, buyers could pay cash for metal scrap on the day of sale. After the law, buyers had to wait at least three business days to send a check.

Before the change, thieves would sell metal in Portland to avoid Washington regulations, which require buyers of metals and catalytic converters worth more than $30 to hold payment for 10 days and then mail a nontransferable check to a street address.

Vancouver police spokeswoman Kim Kapp says anyone who sees a missing grate should call 911.

"For the safety of the public, we want to know that right away," she said.