Burning for a buck

  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 Management.

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.

Since it's 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 reclaim.

"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
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