Illegal and hazardous
It had happened again on almond grower Scott Hunter's farm: Under the protection of a night sky, trespassers had dumped harmful chemicals and materials left over from an illicit methamphetamine laboratory.
For the third time this year, drug manufacturers had created a hazardous-waste site on his Livingston-area farm.
"As tragic as the meth lab is and potentially harmful to the environment, the reality is the type of people that drop them off are the same ones that are stealing my motors and fuel and vandalizing my tractors," Hunter said. "Rural crime is getting progressively worse. When I first came here it was rare that you would ever see a meth-lab dump. Over the past five years we've seen more meth labs, but we've also experienced abandoned cars that have been burned, thievery and a lot of crime. It is more than just the meth lab, it is the whole lifestyle and the kind of crimes it causes. Simply put, a meth lab on my property is just a symptom of a sickness, the sickness being all of the other crime that takes place."
Although local law enforcement is doing everything it can to respond, investigate and prevent these crimes, the manufacture of methamphetamine in California's Central Valley continues to be a big problem.
"This is not something to be proud of, but this is the meth capital of the world. A majority of the methamphetamine produced is made in the Central Valley," said Detective Frank Swiggart of the Merced County Sheriff's Department Agricultural Crimes Unit.
Methamphetamine labs are discovered on just about any type of farm. Bill Ruzzamenti, director of the Central Valley High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, has found meth labs at chicken ranches, turkey ranches, cattle ranches, dairies, vineyards, orange groves and other farming locations.
Ruzzamenti recalls one case where a Fresno-area orange grower found meth lab-related contaminants on his property. Once the toxic materials were located, the property was condemned. The farmer saw two years' worth of orange production destroyed, and ultimately lost the farm.
The production of methamphetamine is one of the most dangerous problems confronting rural communities in California today. Methamphetamine or crystal meth is an illegal stimulant—the most potent form of speed available and is injected, snorted or swallowed.
People who produce meth commonly seek out rural locations such as outbuildings and sheds to do the cooking process. Common ingredients used in the manufacture of the drug, such as denatured alcohol, red phosphorus and ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine, can be purchased at local stores and are mixed with other ingredients to make methamphetamine.
Meth production can also have explosive results.
"Characteristically, methamphetamine production does not happen in a perfect lab environment. Gases that come from the process are extremely volatile," said Jon Kempf, Allied Insurance special investigations unit manager. "Gases build up and once they hit an ignition source—Bunsen burner, stove, a hot water heater kicks on, a pilot light turns on—you get a major explosion."
Once the drug is produced, the cookers dump harmful chemical containers and other products onto rural properties, leaving farmers with hazardous-materials sites that harm soil and water quality and endanger anyone who comes into contact with the site.
Contaminants can cause health problems including headaches, nausea, dizziness, skin and eye irritation and burns.
"For every 1 pound of methamphetamine that is produced, 6 to 10 pounds of toxic waste is produced in the process, so in manufacturing 100 pounds of meth, anywhere from 600 to 1,000 pounds of toxic waste is manufactured," Ruzzamenti said. "A lot of times if they are doing the manufacturing at a cattle ranch or a dairy, they will just dump it in amongst the cattle so that it just gets stomped into the mud and settles. In some canals in Merced County, because so much red phosphorus had been dumped there, the actual sides of the canals were stained red."
Canals are a common place for drug cookers to dump meth-related materials, but Ruzzamenti says authorities have noticed that more often meth producers are burying the materials on rural properties.
Once a meth lab is located, Ruzzamenti's organization, whose mission is to target drug trafficking activity, does what is called the "initial remediation" or cleanup of lab-related materials such as canisters, trash bags or chemicals. If contaminants have seeped into the soil or groundwater, he said, a secondary remediation is required.
"At that point we call the county health department. It varies from county to county, but in nine counties out of 10, the county health department immediately condemns the property until the followup remediation is completed," he said.
If a building becomes contaminated, it must be bulldozed and all of the materials taken to a certified hazardous waste site, the closest one being in Tennessee, Ruzzamenti said. The cleanup cost to the landowner can range from $20,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In Hunter's case, the materials dumped at his property were cleaned up quickly with the help of a private company called Professional Asbestos Removal Corp. that specializes in the removal of hazardous waste. Wearing protective suits, the company's hazardous materials emergency response team carefully removed materials left at the dump site, including chemical containers, bed sheets, kitty litter, propane tanks and other items used in the cooking process. Any possibly contaminated dirt on the property was also removed. The team conducts on-site testing to ensure soil is free of any contaminants before it returns the site to the grower.
Rural-crime specialists suggest that farmers who spot what they believe could be a methamphetamine lab or meth-lab dump contact the local sheriff's department and keep a safe distance away, because lab materials are highly volatile and suspects are usually armed and dangerous. Once it is confirmed that the site is in fact a methamphetamine lab or a dump site of lab materials, the sheriff's department will contact a hazardous-materials team to remove the lab.
Hunter, a member of the Merced County Farm Bureau and chairman of the California Almond Board, said he appreciates what law-enforcement officers are doing to protect farmers and their families.
"Police officers are doing everything that they can to stop the problem. It is just important that we make sure we as farmers continue to keep pressure on legislators so we that have the money in the budget to staff these officers," Hunter said. "The work that law enforcement does is only limited to what kind of manpower they have. If we want to really take this on, it is important that we continue to fund these rural crime task force programs."
Read the four-part series.
(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.