Moxee company knows how to get the lead out

MOXEE -- The hulking contraption looks as if it were conceived by Rube Goldberg, whose unwieldy machines seemed designed to finagle through a thousand seemingly unrelated actions what might easily have been achieved in one.

In this case, the end result seems to be the creation of dust. Clouds of it.

But the metal-and-tubing entrails that took up temporary residence last month just beyond the trap-shooters' range at the Sun Valley Shooting Park near Moxee are, in fact, the result of both a proactive business approach and what used to be called good old American ingenuity.

Several years ago, a family-run paving and construction company called Devil's Lake Rock was doing well in Lincoln City, Ore. -- that is, until dozens of new competitors moved in, lured by the coastal community's building boom.

"Even for a little job like a sport court," said Mark Morris, 31, the son of Devil's Lake Rock partner Larry Morris, "there would be like 28 companies bidding on it. Basically, we just wanted to try to diversify our company a little bit. We thought it would be a good idea to do something that wasn't as competitive as what we were doing."

That something turned out to be "mining" lead -- collecting the millions of tiny shotgun-load BBs deposited by trap and skeet shooters at clubs like Sun Valley so the metal can be recycled.

The Morris family essentially created a second business, ERS -- for Environmental Reclamation Service -- and began looking for customers.

That was the easy part.

The harder part was building a device to separate the lead from the rocks, sand and debris.

The company had to go through numerous incarnations of separators, perfecting the concept incrementally over long months of small successes and large failures.

"We have a huge shop at home where we had all our experimentation," Mark Morris said. "We used to spend nights in there. Everybody back home called us mad scientists, because we'd get off work (with the construction end of the business), go in there and close the doors."

Some configurations would work at a small scale but not on a large scale.

"It was really difficult, but there's no 1-800 number you can call to get advice on it," he said.

Finally, Larry Morris and sons Mark and Adam, 33, came up with their prototype separator.

And though it took a fair amount of experimentation to get it just right, Larry Morris sounds nonplussed by the family's inventiveness.

"That's what we do. It's no big deal," he said. "A lot of the components are similar to what we do in the construction industry."

But the family knew it had something worthwhile. With pure lead going for about $1 a pound, shooters are happy to be able to purchase recycled lead at far less than that, and ERS has no trouble finding commercial buyers, from ammo suppliers to businesses that will simply melt it down for resale.

"That market is so widely ranged," Larry Morris said, "everybody has different outlets where they can (sell it)."

Based on what they're hearing from shooting ranges who have used other excavating companies, the Morrises' separator-- which they call the "screening plant" -- produces as clean a product as anybody in the business.

So for the first several months after perfecting the behemoth, they hired security crews to guard the equipment at night.

"We didn't want anybody to figure out how we were doing it," Mark Morris said. "Then we realized, hey, we're never going to be millionaires doing this and we figured if you want to try this line of work, you go right on ahead."

The separator is like nothing you've ever seen.

It's 13 feet tall and almost 40 feet long -- when folded up for transportation.

When on the job, it's even more gargantuan.

"It really looks funny," Mark Morris said. "There's like 50 tubes going every which way. Those screening plants make so much dust, with material going through five different stages before it comes out, and we're trying to put a dust collection system in every stage."

For ERS, which does a thorough inspection -- literally in-depth -- of a park's shooting field before taking a job, the job can be lucrative as well.

In a single day, its "screening plant" at Sun Valley can fill up seven 55-gallon drums with remarkably clean lead to be resold.

When full, each drum weighs 3,000 pounds.