It sounds like an easy way to make a few dollars: Gather up coils of old industrial-gauge wire, pile it in the desert, douse it with diesel and burn off the rubber and lead insulation. The raw copper left behind brings 80 cents to a dollar per pound.
The trouble is, it's illegal and a
health hazard. The burned residue contains substantial
concentrations of lead and small amounts of carcinogens that can
find their way into drinking water, says Keith Chapman, a
hazardous-waste coordinator for the Bureau of Land
But because copper prices are up,
wire burning is on the rise. "We've had cases where people were
taking down live power lines to get wire to burn for copper," says
Jack Brown of the BLM.
There are more than 100
known wire-burning sites on public land in Utah, estimate BLM
officials. The largest site found in the state so far is located a
mile east of the Vernal landfill, a patch of charred scrubland as
big as an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
hard to catch the culprits in the act, taxpayers typically foot the
bill for cleanup. One site, only twice as big as a desktop,
probably yielded less than $100 in copper but cost $3,208 to
"We've prosecuted three wire burners in
the last two years," says Brown of the BLM. "The folks we catch are
the kind that will collect or steal wire, drive out in the desert
and have a bottle of wine while they burn it off, then cash in the
copper to buy another bottle of wine." - Chris Smith