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Sierra Magazine
Welcome to Meth Country

Toxic waste from clandestine drug labs in the rural West is being dumped on the land and into streams, sewage systems, and landfills.

By Marilyn Berlin Snell

When sheriff's deputies in sparsely populated northeastern Arizona received a tip about a stolen vehicle in 1999, they figured they'd be able to make a bust near the town of Show Low and be back at Apache County headquarters in St. Johns in time for lunch. Instead, they stumbled into one of the largest clandestine methamphetamine labs found in the state that year. The easy part was arresting the three suspects-brothers ages56, 62, and 64, who lived on the property and had in their possession 39 weapons, including a fully automatic Mac-10 with a 50-round magazine and a 30 aught-six rifle with a spotting scope. Then the dangerous work began.

Known variously as ice, speed, crank, go, and the poor man's cocaine, meth is a highly addictive central-nervous-system stimulant and one of the few controlled substances people without any chemistry expertise can manufacture on their own. Of the 32 chemicals that can be used in varying combinations to make or "cook" meth, one-third are extremely toxic. Many of these chemicals are also reactive, explosive, flammable, and corrosive. Of the 1,654 labs seized nationwide in 1998-mostly in the western United States-nearly one in five were found because of fire or explosion.

Law enforcement officers have to take samples of all the chemicals for prosecution purposes, and must wear hermetically sealed moon suits and self-contained breathing apparatuses for protection. Hazmat (hazardous-materials) teams then come in to clean up the mess. And it's a big mess: For every pound of meth produced, between five and six pounds of highly toxic waste is generated. For big cooks like the one in Apache County, which was capable of making fifteen pounds of meth a day, cleanup costs often exceed $100,000.

Yet even with these measures, there's no guarantee that the location will ever be fit to reinhabit. The chemicals and fumes that permeate the walls, carpets, plaster, and wood of meth labs, as well as the surrounding soil, are known to cause cancer, short-term and permanent brain damage, and immune and respiratory system problems. In fact, because of the environmental and liability risks, counties don't even bother to confiscate the property.

In a sign of just how risky ownership of this type of hazardous-waste site is, a $70,000 lien was put on the Apache County property, but since no one else wanted anything to do with it -- including the bank and the county -- the land is now back in the hands of the three brothers.

"I would rather investigate a homicide than a meth lab," says a frustrated Lieutenant Andrew Tafoya, who led the Apache County investigation. "These labs are a logistical and environmental nightmare." The lab sites also act as toxic springs that wend their way into nearby streams and groundwater.

When Tafoya got into law enforcement 13 years ago, the last thing on his mind was being done in by toxic fumes or cancer-causing chemicals. Apache County is cattle country, and although officers there were not at first thrilled to be talking to someone associated with the Sierra Club-which has strongly criticized grazing practices in the Southwest-Tafoya and others were eager to discuss what has become one of the most hazardous aspects of their job: clandestine meth labs.

1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse estimated that 4.7 million Americans have taken meth. Though it's always difficult to get an accurate reading of illegal drug use, a few meth statistics confirm its growing popularity: In a national survey that measured the prevalence of drugs among U.S. adolescents, meth use among high school seniors more than doubled between 1990 and 1996; in San Diego in 1994, there were more admissions to treatment facilities for meth than for alcohol; and in Contra Costa County near San Francisco, police found that meth was involved in 89 percent of the reported domestic dispute cases in 1998.

Until the 1990s, meth production was concentrated primarily in the West and Southwest and controlled by outlaw motorcycle clubs that kept a tight lid on their secret recipes. But in the mid-'90s, after a cooking method showed up on the Internet that called for an ingredient widely available in farming communities-a type of fertilizer-small-scale meth labs took hold and flourished in the Midwest as well.

Today, California, Arizona, and Missouri vie for the dubious honor of meth capital of America-though in terms of sheer volume, California has always been and remains Numero Uno. According to Drug Enforcement Administration testimony before Congress, of the 71 "super labs" seized by DEA agents nationwide in 1998-a super lab can produce between 10 and 100 pounds of meth in a single batch-57 were in California.

At the Apache County site, Tafoya and his team discovered massive amounts of iodine crystals, hidriotic acid, and red phosphorus. The suspects had been using a cooking method known as the pseudoephedrine/ephedrine reduction method, which mixes toxic chemicals to convert the drug ephedrine-a stimulant that acts on the body like the hormone adrenaline-into meth. Pure ephedrine is a regulated chemical (meaning the DEA has reporting requirements for its sale and movement), but the synthetic version is available in over-the-counter decongestants and diet pills. The federal government places a limit of eight packages per person on Sudafed and other medications containing pseudoephedrine-because of their use in the manufacture of meth-but the determined meth cook need only visit less vigilant stores to fill his basket with this key ingredient.

Iodine is mostly used by ranchers, in miniscule amounts, to treat thrush on horse hooves. As a rule, most meth cooks don't have horses. Instead, they use gallons of the chemical-which in large amounts is toxic to the gastrointestinal system and the thyroid gland, not to mention the environment- in the initial stages of the pseudoephedrine/ephedrine cooking process.

Oil refineries use hidriotic acid to test crude oil for sulfur content. One or two gallons can last a refinery an entire year. So, what does a guy living out in the middle of nowhere need with 50 gallons of the stuff? As the principal chemical in the pseudoephedrine reduction process, hidriotic acid breaks down the pseudoephedrine molecules to create meth.

Red phosphorus can be found at the end of every matchstick in your house, and also in road flares. Needless to say, it's highly flammable. The Apache County lab had 550 pounds of red phosphorus on site-about 549.99 pounds more than anyone in their right mind would need to light their backyard barbecue.

In the pseudoephedrine reduction process, if red phosphorus and iodine are heated and improperly vented by the amateur chemist, a lethal and odorless gas called phosphene is created. "If we don't know it's a lab when we go in," says Tafoya, "the immediate danger is that we don't have breathing apparatuses on and we inhale toxic gases that can kill us or fry our lungs."

In 1999, Arizona found 473 labs. The year 2000 was on track to exceed that number. The majority were small-scale operations (called "Beavis-and-Butthead" labs by DEA agents) located in urban areas. Makeshift labs have been found in motel rooms, homes and apartments on quiet, cactus-lined streets in Phoenix, and even in car trunks.

Jim Molesa, the DEA's public-affairs officer for Phoenix, says that the average small lab costs between $3,000 and $4,000 to clean up. "The small urban labs make a couple ounces," he says, just enough to feed the cook's addiction-with leftovers sold to buy over-the-counter chemicals for the next batch. "But there's still a horrible environmental component with these labs," Molesa adds. "They're almost like a mini-hazardous-waste site."

Special Agent William Etter works with the DEA in Northern California and deals with urban labs almost daily. According to Etter, these labs are an ever-increasing micro problem: In 1995, 52 percent of the lab seizures nationwide were in metropolitan areas. "With urban labs, there are levels of contamination that hit you where you live," says Etter. "When I think of the environment, it's not just about the birds, bees, and trees. How about the urban environment? Knowing what I know about meth, I'd never move into a house that had been a lab."Scott Logan, who heads Envirosolve, the company contracted by the DEA to clean up meth labs in Arizona, agrees. "The small labs contain flammable solvents, chlorinated solvents, acid bases," says Logan. "We find just about every toxic food group." When it comes to the environmental costs of meth, urban blight and rural blight-micro labs and macro ones-blur into one Superfund-size problem.

The "trunk labs," where all the makings for meth are piled into the trunk of a car, present their own special problems since they're essentially mobile hazardous-waste sites. Recently, a trunk lab was discovered in the Apache National Forest in the southern sector of Apache County. Rocky Gardom, a supervisory law enforcement officer for the U.S. Forest Service, was involved in the raid. "They were in a little side canyon and had been cooking right next to the vehicle," he says. "They had set up tents and had everything laid out. It looked like they planned to be there a while."

Gardom adds that he often finds tree-kills around the labs. "We had one mobile-home lab that had been operating for several years on private land within the boundaries of the Sitgreaves National Forest," he says. "We found some large ponderosa pines that were a hundred and fifty years old killed off by the fumes."

Gardom also says he's seeing more labs in his forest than he did ten years ago, and attributes the increase both to a sharp rise in the drug's popularity during the 1990s and to intensified law enforcement in urban areas. "This stuff is easier to detect in the city," says Gardom, "and so they're moving onto Bureau of Land Management and national forest land that's more remote." The cooking process smells to high heaven-one law enforcement officer describes it as a mix between battery acid and rotten eggs-but the smaller labs can conceal the stench by using a hose to run the fumes from glass cooking flasks through kitty litter before it's piped outside. Larger-scale operations can't control the smell, so they need a lot of wide-open space without nosy, complaining neighbors. The Southwest, with its vast tracts of rural and public lands, is perfect for the bigger cooks.

Remote areas also offer easier disposal of the toxic by-products of the manufacturing process. Lab operators routinely dump hazardous waste on the land, into streams, and into landfills and sewage systems. The cooks at the lab in Apache County used their land and a nearby ravine as a toxic-waste dump. The county, a 12,000-square-mile area with only 65,000 residents, has two lab-certified officers-both trained at the DEA center in Quantico, Virginia-and they're training a third. When a lab is discovered, these officers are called in, along with hazmat teams from Phoenix. Two buildings were demolished at the Apache County site, since all surfaces were contaminated with toxic chemicals.

Tons of contaminated soil were also removed. Along with the red phosphorus, iodine crystals, and hidriotic acid, 500 pounds of other chemicals, including acetone and Red Devil lye, were carted off, as well as $15,000 worth of glassware used in the meth-making. Envirosolve trucked off seven semi loads of toxic material, though it left behind the dead shaggy bark juniper and pi¤on pines that had been poisoned by fumes from the lab.

"These guys had their own breathing apparatuses to use while cooking," says Apache County's narcotics agent Clifford Thorn, adding that the Phoenix Fire Department had to donate breathing devices to the county because it couldn't afford them. The trees had to fend for themselves.

Born and raised on a ranch, Agent Thorn still works cattle on 11,000 acres near the lab site. He notes that downstream from the site, on a ranch adjoining the property, 20 head of cattle turned up dead. "As a rancher, I found that highly unusual," says Thorn. "These guys were filtering their chemicals and then dumping the toxic residue right into the drainage." Autopsies on the cows found high levels of toxicity but the results were inconclusive. The report said the cattle had extensive kidney and liver damage, but that this was consistent with damage caused by jimson weed as well as some of the chemicals found at the site. "But you've got to wonder," Thorn adds. "Jimson only grows in the spring and these cows all died at once, in September."

Across the state from Apache County, near the California border, lies the desert outpost of Kingman, Arizona. The town made headlines in 1995 when it was discovered that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh had been living there right before his fateful road trip to the heartland. This vast and desolate region in western Arizona is also meth country. In fact, McVeigh's lawyer made an argument during the trial that his client was a practicing, paranoid, delusional "tweaker," or meth addict, whose judgment had been irreparably impaired by his drug use.

Mohave County law enforcement officers don't like to be reminded of their infamous former resident, but they're more than willing to confirm that they have a serious meth-lab problem. The county's percentage of meth labs per capita has earned it a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area designation from the federal government.

In 1998, a super lab using the "Nazi" cooking method was found near Kingman. Named for the process used to make meth during World War II in Germany to energize Wehrmacht troops, the recipe was taped to the lab wall when officers and a hazmat team from Phoenix arrived. "In this county there's no industry besides prisons and agriculture," says Mohave County DEA agent Jeff Sandberg. "But there are a lot of remote areas that make a great place to do meth business." According to both state and federal narcotics agents in Mohave County, meth labs are their biggest problem.

Last February, Mohave County law enforcement raided a super lab in a scrub-brush-and chaparral rural subdivision 18 miles east of Kingman. Emmett Sturgill, the Narcotics Unit supervisor for the Arizona Department of Public Safety in Kingman, says that as cattle grazing operations go under, the land is being subdivided and sold dirt-cheap. "For $250 down you can buy a 40-acre parcel, so all these low-life jerks who don't have much money grab these deals, go out there and put a camper down, and start cooking meth."

The lab, on Cedar Ridge Road, was in full swing when officers converged on the trailer. It took three days and more than $100,000 to clean up the contaminated soil, destroy the buildings, and cart off the toxic chemicals. "We didn't find much waste in containers at the site," says Detective Ernie Severson, who was in charge of the Cedar Ridge raid and cleanup. "But there are miles and miles of desert where they probably dumped it."

"I have an 11-month-old baby," Severson adds. "Because of the chemicals I track through at these labs I've got to keep my boots away from him. In a real sense, I have to worry about taking my work home."

Marilyn Berlin Snell is Sierra's writer/editor.

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