Friday, July 06, 2001

Fertilizer thefts signal a growing meth lab problem

Anhydrous ammonia is 'Juice' for drug trade

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        On the farm, it's a high-nitrogen fertilizer that keeps crops a healthy green, and it usually costs less than $2 a gallon.

        On the streets, anhydrous ammonia is known as the “juice” that's fueling the growing production and abuse of methamphetamine — and it can sell for $60 to $200 a gallon.

[photo] Royster-Clark Nitrogen stores its anhydrous ammonia under tight security.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        Because of the potential for profit, thieves are striking farms and fertilizer supply outlets throughout the Tristate. They're also endangering themselves and others who might have contact with the hazardous substance.

        Rising thefts of anhydrous ammonia are an unexpected symptom of the region's growing problem with “meth,” a highly addictive stimulant concocted from cold medicines, household chemicals and, often, anhydrous ammonia. Illegal meth labs are being busted in Southwest Ohio in record numbers — more than in any other region of the state.

        “People should be worried” about the thefts of anhydrous ammonia, says Bill Chokran, plant manager of Royster-Clark Nitrogen, which keeps many tons of the pressurized liquid fertilizer in a high-security, remote location west of downtown.

        “Anyone who tries to get into this stuff is crazy,” he says. “If you get it on you, it's going to burn you. If you inhale it, it's going to put you on the ground. It could kill you.”

        In Southwest Ohio, where anhydrous ammonia is useful to supplement clay-based soil, the number of meth lab busts has quadrupled in less than a year. Since October, at least 80 meth labs have been dismantled in Ohio and Northern Kentucky — and 48 of them were in Greater Cincinnati, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Columbus office.

[photo] John Burke, commander of the Warren County Drug Task Force, displays ingredients commonly used in illegal meth labs.
(Dick Swaim photo)
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        During spring, the prime fertilizer application season, “you can drive down every country road and see (anhydrous ammonia) tanks just sitting there,” says Jay Cooke, criminal intelligence analyst for the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation. “There's nobody watching them.”

"It's scary stuff'

        While there are ways to make meth without the ammonia, the recipe most common in Ohio requires it. And unlike cold medicines, drain cleaners, batteries and other substances used in meth, “anhydrous ammonia isn't available at the corner store,” says John Burke, commander of the Warren County Drug Task Force.

        “So you have the farmers who use anhydrous ammonia, and there are the folks that sell it to them, and they are the two that get hit,” he says. “At nighttime, these wing nuts will break into the anhydrous tanks and put it into propane tanks, then drive off.”

        Anhydrous ammonia — literally, ammonia without water — is so potent that a teaspoonful must be diluted with about five gallons of water to make it suitable for household use, Mr. Chokran says.

        Stored as a liquid under pressure at minus-28 degrees, anhydrous ammonia is an essential component of the so-called “Nazi method” of making meth, which produces an intense high that can last for days when smoked, snorted, injected or eaten.

[photo] The Warren County Sheriff's Office released this photo taken inside a home where methamphetamine was “cooked.”
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        The drug does have legitimate medical uses. In low doses, it may be prescribed to treat attention deficit disorder, obesity and certain sleep disorders.

        But when illegally produced, untrained people — who are frequently high on dope — mix the ammonia with other substances in a flammable, explosive and toxic brew.

        “It's scary stuff,” Mr. Burke says. “Meth is a lot different than other drugs. Meth creates a whole lot of other issues that can affect anybody. It could be your neighbor cooking it next door, with all these explosive chemicals. And then there are the toxic wastes they just toss out afterward.”

        In Highland County, east of Cincinnati, two meth labs have exploded since late May, injuring six people.

        Besides being dangerous, the labs require costly environmental cleanup — about $150,000 each — to remove toxic waste that can sterilize soil and pollute water supplies.

Law targets illegal labs
    • Known as “ice,” “crystal,” “chalk,” “glass” and “crank,” methamphetamine can be smoked, snorted, injected or eaten.
    • Users may become agitated, hallucinate, turn violent and paranoid.
    • It is cooked in clandestine labs that create health, environmental and safety hazards. The labs have been found in car trunks, duffel bags, storage lockers, hotel rooms, barns and homes.
    • Signs of meth lab operation include unusual, strong odors and excessive amounts of trash.
    • For each pound of meth, about five pounds of toxic waste are produced, and the chemicals can cause severe lung damage and skin and eye burns.
    • Common ingredients and equipment: Pills containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, anhydrous ammonia, acetone, vehicle starting fluid, lye, drain cleaner, jugs, bottles, funnels, glass jars, coffee filters, propane tanks, hot plates, strainers.
    • If you suspect an illegal lab is operating nearby, contact local police or fire crews; the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services, (614) 466-7782; the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, (614) 644-3020; the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, (513) 684-3671; or the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services, (614) 466-3445.
    Here are highlights of meth lab busts in the Tristate over the past 15 months:
   • April 10, 2000: Undercover drug agents broke up what was believed to be Cincinnati's first methamphetamine lab, located in a shed behind a vacant house in Fairmount after neighbors complained of fumes.
   • June 28, 2000: A Harlan Township couple was accused of running Warren County's first known methamphetamine lab. Phillip and Lori McMullen later pleaded guilty to a single felony charge each of aggravated possession of drugs. Authorities who raided the property said they found 57 loaded guns, a pound of marijuana, $4,000 in cash and 33 grams of meth.
   • Oct. 6, 2000: Authorities shut down Farmer's Tavern, a hole-in-the-wall bar they say was an outlet in a Tex-Mex drug pipeline that pumped $1 million worth of dope each week into Butler County. Six suspects were arrested and accused of being part of a group that was the Tristate's biggest meth supplier caught to date, the DEA's Cincinnati office said.
   • Oct. 16, 2000: After a lengthy investigation, Cleves police made their first-ever methamphetamine bust. They found no working meth lab, but did find paraphernalia used in its manufacture and packaged meth ready for sale.
   • Dec. 15, 2000: Police in Indiana raided suspected methamphetamine labs in Columbus, Crawfordsville and Jennings County. The raids resulted in six arrests.
   • Feb. 20, 2001: A methamphetamine lab run out of a van and home was discovered by Boone County Sheriff's Department deputies during a drug raid on Dorcas Avenue in Florence. Two people were charged.
   • April 23, 2001: Four Mississippi residents were arrested after police found a methamphetamine lab in an Aberdeen, Ohio, hotel room; a 2-year-old found there tested positive for methamphetamine.
   • May 29, 2001: Police in Highland County responded to a meth explosion in a rented home. At least two people were hurt.
   • May 31, 2001: Police discovered a methamphetamine lab in a Florence motel.
        In less than 10 years, clandestine meth production has spread from the western United States to almost every state east.

        Reports of illegal labs, dump sites and arrests are increasing in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. Meth labs can show up virtually anywhere — homes, apartments, motel rooms, car trunks and even duffel bags.

        “This tide is flowing eastward, and we're hoping to throw a wall up around Ohio,” says Rep. Jeff Manning, R-North Ridgeville, who sponsored an anti-meth law that takes effect in Ohio on Aug. 7.

        The law makes it a felony to assemble or possess chemicals for the manufacture of drugs. It was developed because police were finding people with anhydrous ammonia and other ingredients to make meth, but former laws didn't allow an arrest unless officers caught the suspects cooking the drug.

        Until recently, “no one really knew why anhydrous ammonia was being stolen,” Rep. Manning says.

        The meth problem is forcing law enforcement agencies to take a novel approach to crime-fighting, says Brent Walls, spokesman for the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services.

        “Generally, when you have a drug problem, you don't think to go and talk to the Farm Bureau or the local convenience store, but that's what we're having to do with meth,” he says.

        Mr. Walls' office is sending a “methamphetamine awareness guide” to 900 Ohio police agencies for distribution to the public, retailers and farmers.

        And officers in Warren, Clermont and Highland counties say they have tried to warn farmers that their fertilizer supplies might be in jeopardy.

Thefts unreported
        Several area farmers and fertilizer suppliers who reported thefts declined to be interviewed, citing security reasons.

        And police and fertilizer suppliers say they think many more ammonia thefts are going unreported than reported.

        Typically, thieves will collect a few gallons — an amount that might not be missed from a tank containing 800 gallons or so. If a farmer does notice some of the fertilizer is gone, the monetary loss is small and he might not report it, authorities say.

        Some “juice” thieves are so brazen, they'll steal entire tanks containing thousands of pounds of anhydrous ammonia.

        “I know of four different tanks that were stolen in Southwest Ohio this spring,” says Stan Hicks, chief operating officer for Harvest Land Co-Op, a supplier of anhydrous ammonia to hundreds of farms throughout Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. “If there's a tank out on the farm, it's a target.”

        In May, a tank containing 4,400 pounds of the ammonia was stolen from a Harvest Land site in Butler County. The tank, minus a small amount of the fertilizer, was later found abandoned.

Thefts pose dangers
        The thefts create frightening safety hazards, says Detective Sgt. Steve Alexander of the Highland County Sheriff's Office. The department has investigated 14 meth labs and dump sites and at least 10 anhydrous ammonia thefts in less than seven months in the largely rural area.

        “All four of our detectives are working on nothing but meth,” Detective Sgt. Alexander says.

        Tampered valves on anhydrous ammonia tanks can expose unsuspecting farmers to the chemical, he notes. And the thieves transporting the ammonia endanger anyone nearby.

        “I'm surprised that we haven't had people killed with these propane tanks filled with anhydrous — they're not made for that,” Detective Sgt. Alexander says.

        On May 28, a Highland sheriff's deputy was called to investigate suspects fleeing from the field of a farmer who reported six anhydrous ammonia thefts this year.

        The deputy lost sight of the suspects, then backtracked to a spot where they had tossed something from their car. When the deputy picked up the container, “anhydrous fumes came up and got him — and he was out of work for a week,” Detective Sgt. Alexander says.

        Because of the potential for such incidents, fertilizer suppliers are conducting training sessions for police, fire and ambulance crews on how to protect themselves in case of exposure to anhydrous ammonia, Mr. Hicks says.

        They also try to inform farmers about storage and handling precautions.

        However, specially developed locks and other security measures sometimes fail because the thieves are so determined, says Jim Sweigert, risk coordinator for Harvest Land.

        “They're breaking the locks, they're damaging the equipment to get to the ammonia,” he says. “In one of our facilities, we spent several thousand dollars on a chain-link fence and barbed wire — and just a few days after our fence was up, they cut it.”

Meth an "epidemic'
        People who make or use meth become fixated on getting it because “there are few, if any, products out on the market that can produce that intense kind of high,” says Bill Williams, coordinator of the Clermont County Drug Task Force, which has dismantled 22 meth labs and dump sites so far this year. “It's going to be an epidemic. The addictive qualities of methamphetamine are just phenomenal — even more so than crack cocaine.”

        Besides providing a “high” that can last for days, meth also can be lucrative. For $600 in ingredients, a meth cook can turn a $2,000 profit, Mr. Williams says.

        The fertilizer industry is so concerned, it's working on nontoxic additives that would render the ammonia useless for making meth. CropLife, a farming publication, quoted industry sources in April saying that three anti-meth additives could be available within about eight months.

        “We're very hopeful about this,” Mr. Hicks says. “If we can eliminate (meth cooks') use of the anhydrous, they'll have to look for something else.”

Local trucker charged as meth seized

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