Thieves are pulling off audacious metal heists at Europe’s largest port. They’re even stealing from the Cobalt Jesus.
A group of bankers, brokers, and journalists was huddled outside a dingy warehouse along the Nieuwe Maas River in Rotterdam on a gray morning last January. All around was the industrial sprawl of Europe’s largest port, a landscape of cranes and colorful shipping containers stacked up like Lego bricks, reversing trucks and squalling gulls.
The building was run by Vollers Group GmbH, a logistics specialist based in Germany. One of its managers, Martijn Wijbrandi, led his visitors inside to get high-viz jackets and a safety briefing. We’ve never had a problem with theft, Wijbrandi said, but it pays to be careful.
He pointed out the alarm system, secured by a PIN code. On the warehouse floor, everyone filed past piles of magnesium bricks and bags of coffee to an area walled off by steel sheets that rose almost to the ceiling. A security camera was aimed at the padlocked sliding door.
Wijbrandi gestured to a tattooed young employee in a baseball cap who’d been driving a forklift. The man strolled over to unlock the doors, revealing hundreds of orange and blue drums piled four-high on pallets. Each container was full of chunks of cobalt, a formerly obscure, unwanted metal that got its name from the German kobold, or “goblin,” because it vexed medieval miners who, trying to extract more valuable substances from its ore, were instead rewarded with worthless powder or toxic gas.
It’s lately become highly valuable because it prevents the lithium-ion batteries found in mobile phones and electric cars from overheating and bursting into flames. Cobalt’s value surged more than 300 percent from 2016 to its 2018 high, reaching a record of almost $100,000 a ton.
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