The illegal burning of stolen electrical wires on public lands poses a growing environmental hazard to land and air, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) warned today. Federal and state land management agencies and local law enforcement officials are encountering sharp increases in the incidents of illegal wire burning on public, state, and private lands. Because the crimes are typically committed in remote areas, many are difficult to solve and prosecute.
“A recent successful prosecution of an individual responsible for polluting the public’s land with wire burning,” said BLM California Special Agent in Charge Troy Bolen “is an example of BLM’s strong commitment to its mission of sustaining the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands.” He commended the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for their thorough investigation and diligence in making this prosecution possible.
Burning of electrical wires is a growing problem throughout California, including public land managed by the BLM in Southern California’s vast Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. “Individuals seeking to make a quick illegal profit are stealing electrical wire, usually copper, from anywhere they can and are then burning the insulation from the wire to bring in more at scrap metal recycling facilities,” Bolen said.
“The problem is not only that the wire is stolen,” he explained, “but that when a person douses the wire with diesel and sets fire to it, the end result is toxins, such as dioxins and furans, and heavy metals such as lead, end up in the air, soil and water.” Burning on public land also poses a dangerous wildfire hazard.
Rangers are on patrol throughout the 15 million acres of BLM administered land in California, but public assistance is also sought to catch wire burners in the act. “I want to encourage anyone who comes across an area suspected to be a copper-wire burn site to immediately contact authorities,” said Bolen “If you are out on BLM land, or anywhere, and you see suspected wire burn activity, we encourage you not to approach the site or anyone near it. Get a vehicle license number if it is safe to do so, and call 9-1-1.”
Dioxins, commonly associated with burnt insulation, are easily absorbed and stored in fat tissue. They are known carcinogens and even low concentrations can cause serious health problems such as impaired immune system and liver function. Long-term exposure to lead, a hazardous waste that is released into soil when copper wire insulation is burned, can cause acute or chronic damage to the nervous system, and high doses of copper can cause liver and kidney damage.
Heavy metals are dangerous because they tend to increase in concentration in the body over time. If they find their way into streams, lakes, rivers or groundwater, they can be dangerous to human health and the environment. It is dangerous for small children to ingest even a microscopic amount of highly concentrated lead.
Illegal activity is occurring most frequently on public land because of its remoteness, but the sites are also showing up on state and private land, according to Bolen. The thieves will usually find isolated areas or camping and recreational sites to burn the casing off the wire. It’s not uncommon to find the leftover burnt hazardous materials in fire pits or at camping sites, further putting the public at risk.
“The typical wire burner cashes in on about $100 worth of copper and leaves a contaminated area the size of a kitchen table in return,” said Bolen. “When a site is discovered, it costs the BLM -- and ultimately the American taxpayer -- $5,000 on average to clean up a contaminated area.”
Bolen said the more serious criminal violations on public land are prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and are punishable under provisions of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) and under Title 18 offenses applicable to public lands. Fines can be as high as $250,000 for an individual and $500,000 for an organization or imprisonment up to 10 years, or both.