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Public safety

Not a crisis, just a slow news day

Oak Ridge is a place where unusual and interesting things happen. No one knows that better than the area news media who know they can use a ho-hum story from Oak Ridge to create an attention-grabbing headline on a slow news day.

The week after Christmas is slow news time, and Tuesday’s Knoxville top newspaper headline was “Radioactivity lingers at Oak Ridge sewer plant.” A crisis? No! Revelation of an environmental cover-up? Not!

Rather, Frank Munger’s article tells about a situation that has existed for over a year, wasn’t kept secret, isn’t a health threat, and is under control (although it’s not fully resolved yet). It makes a scary headline that helps sell papers and is likely to convince a few people not to move here, but the actual story is pretty dull. And there’s no reason for public concern.

So how did radioactive material get into our city sewers?

It didn’t. This radioactive material isn’t in the city sewer system. It got into the sewer pipes at the former K-25 Site (ETTP). Sewage from the K-25 Site now goes to the City of Oak Ridge’s satellite wastewater treatment plant at Rarity Ridge. DOE’s K-25 site is now one of the City’s sewage treatment customers.

During the ongoing cleanup of the K-25 Site, some radioactive material leaked from the soil into cracks in the old sewer lines under the K-25 Site. (DOE thought they had sealed off the pipes, but subsequent events revealed that the sealing wasn’t 100% effective.)

The radioactive material (the isotope technetium-99) ended up in the Rarity Ridge wastewater plant where it got attached to the solid material in the sewage sludge.

Isn’t radioactive sewage sludge dangerous?

Well, you definitely shouldn’t eat it, but you shouldn’t eat normal sewage sludge either. This isn’t “hot sludge,” contrary to the words a creative headline writer used in a subtitle on Frank Munger’s article. The level of radioactivity is too low to be a danger for workers or the public. But  sewage sludge contaminated with technetium (which has a very long half-life) isn’t allowed in Tennessee landfills.

To comply with the law, for over a year DOE has been hauling Rarity Ridge sewage sludge to Richland, Washington, for disposal — all at DOE expense.

Is Rarity Ridge contaminated?

No. This has absolutely nothing to do with the residential community there — now known as The Preserve at Clinch River.

What is the City doing to put a stop to this?

Um, nothing. Actually, DOE and the City are cooperating, and this is DOE’s problem, not the City’s. DOE is taking full responsibility and is bearing all of the costs. DOE has made changes at ETTP to make sure this won’t happen again, but they haven’t yet succeeded in clearing all of the radioactivity out of the sludge. Until that happens, they’ll continue to take sludge to Washington.

In summary, this has been an annoyance for DOE and for City personnel, but it’s temporary, it’s not a secret, there is no health and safety risk, and there’s no cost for the City of Oak Ridge. Just one of those unusual and interesting stories about Oak Ridge, and it helped fill a newspaper on a slow news day.

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A vote of confidence for the ORFD

citysealAt this evening’s City Council meeting, the Oak Ridge Fire Department just announced that the city has received an ISO rating of “2”. That may not mean a lot to people, but it’s good news for all of us. I’ve learned that ISO ratings of fire departments are an indication of a community’s fire protection effectiveness. A “1” is the best possible rating, but “1”s and “2”s are very rare, and a “4” is generally considered to be the best rating that most communities can aspire to. Thus, a “2” means we have unusually good fire protection. Also, because many insurance companies use the ISO ratings in setting their fire insurance rates, this “2” rating is likely to save us money on our insurance! Hurray for the ORFD — and the public works department that maintains the infrastructure that helps make this happen.

Added March 4: Oak Ridge Today has more on the story at http://oakridgetoday.com/2014/03/04/new-iso-rating-orfd-among-best-nation/

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Traffic cameras in Oak Ridge — again

signschool One of the thorniest issues that City Council faced in my 5+ years is back. On Monday, Council decides whether to renew the contract with Redflex (possibly in new form), whether to cancel it, and (with or without cameras) whether to ask the state to let the city install a pedestrian-crossing stoplight in front of Oak Ridge High School (instead of continuing existing safety measures like crossing guards and traffic cameras — and to be paid for with traffic camera revenue).

It’s my impression that the majority of Oak Ridgers support the traffic cameras for their positive impact on traffic safety (something that can’t be proven from the available accident statistics, mostly because we don’t have enough accidents to make statistically significant comparisons). Back in 2008, I voted for the city ordinance that allows the use of traffic cameras in Oak Ridge. However, I voted against the contract with Redflex, largely because the plan to use cameras seemed to be more about cameras than about achieving safety goals — it wasn’t connected to engineering analysis or a program of alternative (non-enforcement) methods for improving driver behavior (such as better signs and traffic calming).  Now the city has a chance to re-evaluate the program and improve it for the future.

What should Council vote to do now?

Stop operating some cameras as “speed traps.” The biggest thing I learned from the camera data recently shared with Council and the public (finally, after nearly 5 years of camera operation and many requests) is that there is a solid factual basis for the complaints that I received as a Council member (mostly from out-of-towners) who claimed Oak Ridge was running a speed trap. Redflex data show that about 1.4% of the vehicles passing through a camera-equipped school zone during school-speed-limit hours get tickets, on average. For westbound traffic passing the high school, that goes up to 2.1% (about 1 in every 50 vehicles), and for westbound traffic on Robertsville Road passing Willowbrook School, it’s a whopping 3.9% (about 1 in every 25 vehicles). Those are the kinds of violation rates that people associate with speed traps. Almost one-quarter of the camera tickets issued are for school-zone speeding — the camera operations that function like speed traps. When one person in 25 or one person in 50 is breaking the speed limit and getting ticketed, and this happens day in and day out, I think it says that the speed limit might be unreasonable — or the city needs to be trying other methods to promote safety. I don’t know if this means reducing the number of tickets by reducing the duration of school speed limits (I’ve talked to quite a few people whose camera tickets came when no children were present — for example, 2o minutes after school started) or upping the enforcement threshold (from 6 miles over to 10 miles over, for example), or if it means something like adding more flashing lights in school zones to remind drivers that children are present.

Add a pedestrian crossing light in front of the high school — thus eliminating or reducing the need for crossing guards, traffic cameras, and/or the school-zone speed limit. A pedestrian light is a feasible and affordable way to resolve the longstanding problem of kids crossing Oak Ridge Turnpike at that location — and it seems to me that a pedestrian light could eliminate the need for those other measures (after a phase-in period for people to get used to the new arrangements). I asked for this for several years (ever since city staff outlined a plan for it), and I was disappointed when city staff shelved the idea (largely because of national guidelines that said school speed zones and crossing guards are the preferred means for protecting school kids).  Council should support this now.

To be continued…

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Work session on housing

citysealHousing is the topic of the June 18 City Council work session.

Safety is the housing-related topic that got me writing about this.

Fire chief Darryl Kerley is telling about safety issues related to houses. He is saying that ad hoc renovations around the city over the years have created situations that put residents at risk. Unorthodox wiring splices can create a fire hazard. Landlords use adapters to allow air conditioners with three-prong plugs to plug into two-prong outlets — it works, but it isn’t safe.

He also says that many rental houses have no working smoke detectors. Renters take the batteries out.

Loose electric outlets create high-resistance connections that can start fires. He had to replace several outlets in his house in Briarcliff after noticing that the plugs often fell out of the outlets.

In many houses, the windows are too high or too small to work as a fire exit. To be a suitable exist, the window must be no more than 44 inches off the floor, but many windows are higher than that.

It’s not just older neighborhoods and older houses.  A recent fire in Emory Valley destroyed a two-level home that had only two ways out.

The fire department can inspect rental properties when the utility account changes over, but not if the landlord charges a rent that includes utilities (as many do).

I’ve wondered if a fire sprinkler system would be a wise investment in a house like mine, because our bedrooms have small windows that are pretty high from the floor — and some of them are high above the ground on the outside. I figure a sprinkler system would probably cost less and have less impact on the structure than changing the location and size of our windows. Sprinklers are something I need to ask Chief Kerley about. [Edited June 21: I measured and determined that our windows are 44 inches off the floor.]

Mark Watson says there are 256 housing units believed to be vacant based on their lack of utility consumption. (It’s unclear if these are houses with active utility accounts but no consumption, or if they don’t have active utility accounts.) Vacant units have a big impact on fire and police.

All this raises policy questions about what a city government can do to require  existing homes to be improved to have safe wiring, etc.

Discussion (What is the issue? Is it “blighted property”? Or what?)

Chuck Hope is asking if the issue is eliminating blighted homes or if it’s creating systems to help and encourage people to correct code violations and make other important changes. Need to know more about the nature of problems in our housing stock and the number of homes affected.

Mark Watson says there’s a lot of potential in our existing housing, but it’s often too expensive to bring that housing up to standards.

Anne Garcia Garland supports a landlord-licensing ordinance, but says the city needs some “carrots” in addition to “sticks”. Don’t just say negative things about problem housing, also talk about the positives and how to leverage limited resources beneficially.

Trina Baughn says that $500,000 could buy about 25 dilapidated homes. Is that the right use of this money, or should it be used to help 50 homeowners upgrade their property? It would help to know how many of the 14,000 homes are a problem, and how many are rentals. Mark Watson says it’s been very difficult to determine how many rentals are in town, but it sounds to me like he’s talking about subsidized rentals, not total rentals. He’s been trying to figure out how many Section 8 rental vouchers are being used in the city because not all of them are managed through the Oak Ridge Housing Authority — there are many Section 8 renters in town who got their vouchers come from other housing authorities. Council members were given maps, generated by staff, that show rental housing percentages around the city as reported by the U.S. Census.

Tom Beehan says that Oak Ridge offers great opportunities for affordable starter homes for new homebuyers. He wants the money to be used to start something positive to encourage people to invest. Charlie Hensley wants incentives to help people improve their homes.

Leonard Abbatiello provided information about property tax assessments in the city. He’s saying that this discussion is way overdue. A few years back, 750 of 1000 units in Highland View was a rental, and the number is probably more like 850 now. Rentals are a source of blight; the city needs to get more private ownership in place. He also says that appraisals are not always tied to selling prices, as they are based on a state appraisal manual. Many homes sell below the appraised value. Even in new high-end neighborhoods, some homes are selling at a big discount. He expects Oak Ridge appraisals to go down in the 2015 reappraisal, which means the tax rate will go up. He says the measure of whether you’re fixing the problem is whether it reduces the number of people who work here but don’t live here.

The information distributed to Council members before this session apparently includes some information on what it takes to institute a rental inspection program. Chuck Hope would like to see about putting property maintenance violations into a state administrative hearing officer’s courtroom and take it out of city court, where fines are limited by state law to just $50 per violation. Mark Watson says that an administrative hearing officer probably would be set up in cooperation with other jurisdictions, to share the cost. Watson and City Attorney Ken Krushenski say that city court is now treating each day of violation as a separate violation, which can lead to fines much higher than $50 (more likely to get a property owner’s attention). Chuck Hope is wondering if there are enough cases to make an administrative hearing officer cost-effective for the city. The state’s Neighborhood Preservation Act has features that would be useful for the city, but it applies to only a few jurisdictions in the state.

Mark Watson says that Oak Ridge needs to act upon its unique authorization to set up a land bank, rather than ask the state for some other opportunity. Other communities around the state are eager to see how the land bank works out in Oak Ridge, but the city has been slow to get started.

City staff has drafted a sample land bank ordinance (distributed to City Council) and has applied to the state for a charter for the land bank organization. Mark Watson sees establishment of a land bank as a top priority.

Financing for builders is an issue in his economy… Homeowner’s associations have legal and financial challenges dealing with their responsibilities in this economy… There are about six such associations in the city that are “limping along”.

Anne G.G. wants to know more about how a landlord ordinance could work. The city isn’t very effective in enforcing the ordinances on the books now, so how can we handle this additional burden on staff? Mark Watson says that several city departments would be involved. Volunteers are suggested, but that’s similar to the complaint process that already tends to turn neighbor against neighbor. Trina Baughn says that some landlords are saying that the city’s policy on utility deposits is making it harder to get people to rent property here. She doesn’t want to create additional costs that will be passed on to renters.

Trina Baughn wonders why CDBG funding isn’t proposed to be used for the land bank program. Staff points out that the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has rules how that money can be used.

Tom Beehan is ready to support both ordinances that are proposed (on landlords and on land bank). He thinks there are a lot of positives regarding Oak Ridge housing, and he doesn’t want to forget those. As a real estate professional, he’s very aware that Oak Ridge doesn’t always have the “product” that prospective buyers are looking for. That’s something the city needs to work on.

Chuck Hope wants to emphasize residential rental inspections, not just landlords. He also wants to incentivize people who are doing the right thing, not just punish people who aren’t.

Charlie Hensley says the city shouldn’t penalize the city’s good landlords. One house with a bad tenant can spoil a whole neighborhood. Jane Miller points out that the city has offered training on how to screen tenants; that could be done again. She recalls (and I remember the same) that the last time a landlord ordinance was proposed, owners of large complexes were concerned about the high cost of the per-unit fees that were proposed for the licensing.

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Sitting at another City Council meeting

cityseal I had an EQAB work session earlier, but now I’m at the City Council meeting, having arrived late. I’m not going to live-blog this one, but I can do bit of real-time reporting.

City Council voted 4-2 (Baughn and Garcia Garland opposed; Mosby arrived later) to give Habitat for Humanity a property on Hillside Road. Later they voted 4-3 not to give Oak Ridge Schools approximately $35,000 from  traffic camera revenues for repair of the sinkhole in the high school soccer field. (If I remember right, the four who opposed the soccer field money were Baughn, Beehan, Garcia Garland and Miller. Hensley, Hope and Mosby supported the funding.)

Now the item on the agenda is the FY 2014 budget — for the fiscal year starting July 1. First item of discussion is the school system’s request for city financial support for additional school resource officers (SROs). City Manager Mark Watson says the schools request doesn’t account for the cost of police cars for the additional officers that would be hired. Federal grants exist for school policing, and the city will apply for a grant that could help pay for new officers and equipment. Charlie Hensley suggests waiting until we know about a grant (in the summer) until making a decision on this item. Also, Chuck Hope wants the details of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the schools to be hammered out before making any decision on funding for additional officers in the schools. Chuck also wonders if the SROs need patrol vehicles. Police chief Jim Akagi says that it’s important to have a vehicle, but Chuck thinks it might be possible to outfit a vehicle that’s not fully suited for patrol use. Mark Watson agrees that several things, including the MOU, are pending and need to be sorted out before this is resolved.

Now, at 9:17 pm, there’s a vote on a motion by Trina Baughn to reduce the property tax rate by 1 cent. It fails by a vote of 4-2 (Baughn and Hope voted for), with Anne Garcia Garland abstaining.

The full budget passed without further discussion.

It’s 9:23 PM, and there’s a vote to fill an unexpired term on the Municipal Planning Commission. Candidates are Sheldon Green, Andrew Howe, Martin McBride, and Hugh Ward. Votes: Mosby for Green, Hensley for Ward, Miller for Green, Beehan for Green, Hope for Green, Baughn for McBride, and Garcia Garland for Howe. Sheldon Green is the new Planning Commission member.

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Police seminar on preventing tragedy

An opportunity that may interest many Oak Ridgers these days:

The Oak Ridge Police Department will host a public informational seminar, Preventing Tragedy: A Community United, Monday, April 15, 2013 at The New Hope Center, 602 Scarboro Road from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm.

The recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut has stimulated a broad nationwide discussion aimed at preventing future such events. This seminar is designed to make citizens aware of possible warning signs of violent behavior and a plan for how to alert the proper agency. Topics of discussion will be mental and emotional health, precautions, and solutions. City residents, employers, and employees in Oak Ridge are encouraged to attend.

Speakers will include Jim Akagi, Oak Ridge Chief of Police, Ben Harrington, Executive Director of the Mental Health Association of East Tennessee, and Andy Burr LPC, Ridgeview Psychiatric Center.

Light refreshments will be served at 5:00 pm in the lobby and there will also be informational booths set up. Pre-registration can be made by emailing preventingtragedy@ridgevw.com.  

For more information visit the city website www.oakridgetn.gov.

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What we don’t understand can hurt us

Disposition of uranium-233 has been an issue for DOE in Oak Ridge for a number of years. Now the New York Times has an article about challenges in getting rid of U-233. The article only minimally mentions the challenges that exist at the ORNL facility, where the U-233 is now, but what the article discusses has implications for Oak Ridge.

Since this is a fissile material that could be used for weapons, criticality safety and safeguards/security are major factors in managing it — and have been absorbing some of the money that otherwise would be spent on environmental cleanup of the DOE sites in Oak Ridge. The stuff is also radiologically hot (due to radioactive progeny formed by decay of U-233), which makes its removal and processing far more complicated — and expensive.

At one time, many of us hoped that thorium-229, a medically useful isotope formed by radioactive decay of U-233, would be extracted from the U-233 stockpile for use in treating patients. The idea of using this material to save lives was scrapped due to  complexities of maintaining safety when processing the material and by Congressional action that barred DOE from attempting it. Two years ago, in an environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact, DOE announced that it would blend the U-233 with nonfissile “depleted” uranium (U-238) and dispose of the blended material underground in a licensed facility, such as at the Nevada Test Site. Now the Times article says DOE no longer plans to “downblend” (I recall hearing rumblings of this change), but would instead would be solidified in a ceramic form before disposal — and critics are saying that’s not safe enough.

While controversy continues, the project is providing good jobs in Oak Ridge, but its cost means that other projects that would benefit the community in the long term are being delayed — and the safety/security concerns are sitting here in our backyard instead of at a remote site out west. After the recent breach at Y-12, I believe we are all more aware of these things than we had been in recent years. (I see that Frank Munger touched on this recently.)

Recognizing and understanding these types of issues is a continuing need and challenge. What we don’t understand can hurt us, and we can’t depend on the Department of Energy to look out for the local community if we don’t look out for ourselves. (I miss the Local Oversight Committee!)

Added September 25: Frank Munger’s blog now includes an item about the report that led to the NY Times article.

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Another new ordinance on parking

The third ordinance on parking – the one that Council passed on first reading last Monday – is an amendment to the city ordinances related to on-street parking. It will clarify some of the existing requirements to make it easier for police to enforce them and it will add some new provisions to discourage on-street parking of “oversized” vehicles.

Possibly one of the most important changes is one that seems like it should be unnecessary. The current ordinance states that when a vehicle is parked on the street, the edge of the vehicle must be within 12 inches from the curb (or edge of pavement. The new ordinance will specify that this means the street side of the curb. Council members learned that the police have not been ticketing vehicles parked one foot over the curb because the ordinance wasn’t clear as to which side of the curb it referred to. Most people understood the ordinance to mean that the vehicle should be parked on the street side, but the literal words of the ordinance are what counts when a ticket gets challenged in court.

The ordinance also states that, where parking spaces are marked on the street, parked vehicles must fit inside the lines painted on the pavement. Because most street spaces are 7 feet wide (by my measurements), this will prevent many “oversized” trucks, vans, and trailers from parking on most city streets. It’s expected to be easier for police to enforce rules about parking inside the lines than the previous proposal, which listed vehicle dimensions. Also, because those lines painted on the streets are intended to ensure that traffic can pass safely, a requirement that vehicles must fit inside the lines is pretty clearly related to maintaining public safety.

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New ordinances for parking, on-street and off

Parking has been a big topic for Oak Ridge City Council in recent weeks, and on Monday evening we made our first final decisions on the subject when we passed two ordinances on second reading (that means they will go into effect soon). A third ordinance passed on first reading (that means it needs to be considered a second time before it becomes real).

A new municipal ordinance enacted Monday evening will prohibit parking of recreational vehicles, such as boats and RVs, and utility trailers on city streets, except for short periods (up to 7 days) for short visits or purposes such as loading and unloading from a trip. In nearly every neighborhood of the city, there have been concerns about long-term-parked motorhomes that impede visibility and sometimes limit access for emergency vehicles, boats stored on the street where residents would like to park, and trailers that haven’t been hitched to a motorized vehicle in any of the neighbors’ memories. This is going to “take some getting used to” around Oak Ridge. Not allowing these vehicles to park on the street will pose a problem for people whose lots don’t allow for off-street parking. However, public streets are maintained for transportation, not for storage of private property, and alternatives (such as “U-store” units) exist for people who have more “toys” can they can accommodate on their own property.

Accordingly, I’ve concluded that this is a good rule, and I hope that people whose boats and RVs are being displaced will be able to find storage for them – for example, in a friend’s driveway or a commercial storage unit.
The original version of that ordinance also would have prohibited street parking of “oversized/commercial” vehicles, but that part was removed on second reading, due to concerns about the way that class of vehicles was defined (I couldn’t be sure what it was intended to do, nor what effect it would have) and about the use of that definition in the associated zoning ordinance. Other amendments on second reading increased the short period of allowable parking from 3 days to 7 days (I’m glad for that, on behalf of residents who entertain visiting relatives and friends who travel with motorhomes) and added a provision (proposed by me at Monday night’s meeting) that vehicles may not be relocated on city streets at the end of the 7-day period. I think that provision should help ensure that the new ordinance works as intended, by preventing people from “gaming” the rules by moving their recreational vehicles from one parking spot to another.

The second ordinance enacted on Monday amends the city zoning ordinance to say that motor vehicles may not be parked on the “front” side of any property unless on a prepared (paved or graveled) parking surface that is connected to the street by a city-authorized curb cut. Additionally, it provides that the city may require the near-street parts of driveways to be paved (not just gravel) if there are problems with gravel or soil washing into the street or storm drains. Vehicles can still be parked on unprepared surfaces in the side yard or rear yard, but not in the setbacks required by city zoning code, and they can be parked in the front yard for unusual occasions (parties). As I see it, parking on the front lawn is mostly an aesthetic concern (although I don’t understand why people want to do this), but it can lower property values for the whole neighborhood, and the city government is justified in regulating this because of the public interest in maintaining an “orderly public realm”. It’s pretty clear to me that there is a city government interest in not allowing gravel to wash into city streets, where it can be a safety hazard and a stormwater problem.

The version of the zoning ordinance that passed on first reading also would have banned those “oversized/commercial vehicles” from being parked anywhere on a residential property, but there were problems with the vague definition and with a widely held opinion that many businesspeople (plumbers, electricians, etc.) should be allowed to have their business vehicles at home — particularly as many people also use their commercial trucks and vans for family transportation. Another amendment on second reading changed the driveway-paving requirement from a mandatory requirement to a discretionary one. Meanwhile, I’ve been assured that the city won’t be going after homeowners who have well-built driveways that apparently were never approved by the city as “curb cuts” — as indicated by the fact that the driveways cross a “rollover” curb.

That brings me to the third ordinance that passed on first reading — and that I expect will resolve a number of issues related to enforcement of existing parking rules (like the ordinance against parking on the sidewalk), as well as well as addressing the on-street parking of truly “oversized” vehicles. I need to run now, though, so I’ll tell that story later.

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One more reason to keep an eye on storm drains

At this time of year, I’m often concerned about storm drain grates getting clogged with leaves, since that can add to problems from snow and ice storms. Now a City press release reports a rash of thefts of storm drain grates! Here’s the text of the release:

Recently, the City of Oak Ridge has had numerous reports of metal storm drain grates disappearing from streets at various locations throughout the City. They are city-owned
property and are there for your protection. They are costly both in time/labor and in tax payer dollars to replace.

City Staff is asking area residents and the general public for their assistance. If you see any unusual activity on city streets including anyone removing lids or metal covers
from city-owned property, please call the Oak Ridge Police Department immediately at 425-4399.

Questions or comments can be directed to the City of Oak Ridge, Public Works Department at 425-1875.

Apparently metal prices are getting too high — and people are getting too desperate. I guess we need to add “messing around in storm drains” to the list of potential suspicious activities to watch for in our neighborhoods — and remember that if a grate goes missing, the drain becomes hazardous to humans, pets, and vehicles. I hope our local scrap metal dealers are on the alert for these things!

Added: This spate of thefts ended with several arrests, but I’m not impressed to read that a Coalfield scrap dealer bought the metal from these guys and resold it to a processor.

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