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Speed Zones 

Once largely associated with Midwest farm towns, meth labs are now creeping as far south as New Orleans.

A word of caution to a jittery public: If you hear a sudden explosion on a highway or a suburban residential neighborhood, do not panic. If you smell a strong odor of ammonia or cat urine coming from a neighbor's house, remain calm. Call police or your local fire department.

And if authorities in "moon suits" emerge from a vehicle or residence carrying homemade laboratory equipment, including propane tanks and cooking bowls containing white powder, do not assume the arrested person is a bioterrorist who has been caught making anthrax.

In Louisiana, the odds point to a more familiar villain: illegal drug dealers. Specifically, methamphetamine, or "speed," "meth" and "crank."

The illegal production of the powerful stimulant in fixed-site or mobile "meth labs" represents a growing biothreat to public safety and the Louisiana environment, say federal and state officials, environmentalists and representatives of the ammonia industry. Already associated with high levels of violence toward society, domestic abuse and child neglect, methamphetamine now has a new notoriety: fouling the environment.

"When you are talking about meth labs, you are dealing with lithium, ether, anhydrous ammonia -- a whole host of chemicals that are inherently dangerous," says Salvadore Perricone, chief of the narcotics unit for the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans. "Once combined, you have the potential for explosion and the emission of toxic gases. When the DEA (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration) or the local sheriffs go into a house with a meth lab, they go in like they are dealing with anthrax."

That means donning respirators, chemical-resistant boots and other bioterror garb, and carrying instruments for measuring contamination. Meth-makers also foul the environment by illegally disposing of cancer-causing by-products from their clandestine laboratories or "clan labs."

DEA agents estimate that it costs anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 for hazardous materials experts to clean up a single, dismantled clan lab. And each meth lab produces up to 6 pounds of toxic waste, according to a recent report by the National Drug Intelligence Center of the U.S. Department of Justice.

State and federal officials offer sometimes conflicting assessments on the scope of the meth-lab biothreat in Louisiana. "What we are seeing is occurring more in the rural areas ... Washington, St. Tammany and perhaps Terrebonne parishes," says Perricone, chief federal drug prosecutor for the 13 parishes of southeast Louisiana. "The problem is more prevalent in northern Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama than (southeast) Louisiana."

But one local DEA agent, an expert on meth labs who spoke on the condition of anonymity, offers a different view. The agent, who has four years of field experience, says there has been a "dramatic" increase in the number of meth labs in southeast Louisiana over the last three years.

"Primarily, we see small bands of guys that have a network for distribution in their area," the agent says. "They pool their money together and their knowledge. They obtain the necessary items to 'cook' and they use most of it themselves. What they sell is in smaller quantities.

"That's not to downplay the epidemic that we are currently facing, because in short order you are going to see a extremely large number of reported labs. It has steadily made its way south through Missouri and Arkansas over the last couple of years."

The agent says earlier this month he cleaned up a meth lab operated by a manufacturer inside a Terrytown apartment complex on the West Bank. "This guy was actually a fugitive from California who had blown up an apartment complex during a clandestine manufacture," the agent says.

In Baton Rouge, State Police spokesperson Sgt. William Davis says that "the majority of the labs state troopers have 'taken down' have been in north Louisiana."

"The majority has been near the Arkansas line, but they are spreading south," says Davis. "We have had reports of them as far south as New Orleans but not to the extent that it's been up north. We are making arrests for either theft of anhydrous ammonia or possession of drug lab paraphernalia -- usually weekly."

Meanwhile, a top state prosecutor on the Northshore says meth labs have already spread to dairy farm areas of Washington Parish and into the neighboring small towns of southwest Mississippi.

"It is a widespread event in both rural areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, feeding the meth markets down in the more populous metro areas," says Houston Gascon, First Assistant District Attorney for St. Tammany/Washington parishes. "They are staging areas for New Orleans. ... It's all clandestine. They are producing and cooking this stuff in areas where it could cause an explosion. It has the potential for doing great harm to a lot of people."

Most meth labs have been found in rural areas of the state. The reason for this is found in chemistry, specifically anhydrous ammonia. Farmers use it legally for fertilizer to help grow food. Meth-makers steal the chemical to help "cook" drugs.

Meth-related thefts of anhydrous ammonia pose another threat to both the public safety and the environment. Ammonia storage tanks require special training for handling, industry officials say. "Speed thieves" often fail to use proper containers when siphoning the chemical from legal storage tanks or they leave open valves.

Last October, more than 200 residents of the rural farming town of Bonita, near Monroe, were evacuated after thieves left open a valve on an anhydrous ammonia tank, resulting in the formation of a deadly chemical plume. No one was hurt. State Police say the theft was meth-related.

State agriculture and environmental officials interviewed last week say ammonia thefts have tapered off in the past year. Officials at the two agencies say they are not overwhelmed by their respective support roles to state police for meth lab clean-ups or anhydrous ammonia thefts.

"We have not had any unusual outbreak of thefts," says Larry LeJeune, assistant director of pesticides and environmental programs for the state Department of Agriculture & Forestry. "In the last three years there has been a peak in thefts of anhydrous ammonia scattered throughout the state."

State ag officials investigate ammonia thefts along with the state Department of Environmental Quality, state Police, and the Liquefied Petroleum Gas Commission. Jennifer Betbeze, communications director for DEQ, says DEQ inspectors assist state police in identifying chemicals and biohazards at a meth lab. From 1999 to Oct. 14, 2001, DEQ has accompanied state police on 20 meth lab busts. Betbeze says DEQ has also worked on five cases of thefts of material known to be planned for meth lab use.

"We act in a support role to whatever law enforcement that is going to do the bust," Betbeze says. "We go in and make sure that there are not any hazards to police and to help them identify the chemicals. Meth labs have been a problem in north Louisiana, especially northeast Louisiana. Chemists originally used ether but have moved onto anhydrous ammonia because ammonia is readily found on cotton farms."

DEQ does not dispose of chemicals found at meth labs. "The local police hire out a company to dispose of the waste," Betbeze says. Ross Williams, DEQ's program manager for the surveillance section of the emergency response division, adds: "The present level of busts doesn't significantly affect our ability to respond to other chemical spills and citizen complaints."

In New Orleans, police and fire officials in New Orleans say they have no reports of meth-related fires, explosions or biohazards. State Police "haz mat" experts were unavailable for comment for this story -- last week, they were fanning out across the state to handle a crush of calls related to the anthrax scare.

Today, State Police, already alert for suicide truck bombers carrying hazardous materials, also are on the look-out for meth-makers transporting their toxic wares on I-10 and I-20 -- the major transportation arteries for hard drugs in Louisiana, law enforcement officials say.

"There have been cases of people in other states having a lab in a trunk of a car or other vehicle on the highway," says state police spokesperson Sgt. William Davis. "You can imagine the chemicals that are involved and what could happen in the event of an accident. We have not come across that one yet."

But it may be only a matter of time. While Mexican-made "meth" is available statewide, local production of the stimulant in small portable, misnamed "Nazi labs" is the primary problem in Louisiana, according to a drug threat assessment of the state published in May by the National Drug Intelligence Center, an agency of the U.S. Justice Department.

"In general, methamphetamine is distributed by independent Caucasian dealers, producers and OMGs," or "outlaw motorcycle gangs," the report adds. "In southern Louisiana, where methamphetamine is an emerging problem, police report distributors traveling from rural areas into larger towns to conduct retail sales."

Principal buyers are generally white middle-class to lower-class males, from high school-age students to 40-something commercial truck drivers, according to officials. African Americans are pretty much out of the picture on meth drug issues, offering both blacks and law enforcement reprieve from the racial profiling controversy.

DEA and police on meth lab cases are more likely to express an interest in the buying habits than the race of a suspect, anyway. Law enforcement sources say they are especially interested in the kind of Wal-Mart customer whose shopping basket includes large quantities of Coleman fuel, the antihistamine psuedoephedrine, batteries (for lithium), mineral spirits, paint thinner, ether, lighter fluid and Epsom -- all elements for a meth lab "cook."

An effective cook can produce up to 4 ounces of high-purity meth, which is generally sold by the gram. Emphasizing that they were extrapolating prices for the sake of simplicity, New Orleans DEA agents say meth goes for $17,000 a pound in north Louisiana and $20,000 in the New Orleans area. There is apparently no shortage of rural-based meth makers anxious to bring their product from Louisiana farms to the big city market, officials say.

Deadpans state police Sgt. Davis: "Everything's more expensive in New Orleans."

On the night of Oct. 14, 2000, alert Washington Parish sheriff's deputies on the Northshore arrested three Mississippi residents who were allegedly attempting to steal anhydrous ammonia from S&M Storage Tanks, an ammonia plant on a state highway near Franklinton.

Deputies caught two suspects who were waiting in a car outside the plant gate, while a third siphoned the deadly chemical from storage into small propane tanks. The trio, who planned to sell the chemical for a drug-related profit, now face prosecution under state anhydrous ammonia laws passed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, says St. Tammany/Washington parishes prosecutor Gascon.

By arresting the suspects, the deputies may have saved them from serious injury, if not death, according to government and industry research. Propane tanks are not designed to store anhydrous ammonia and "can explode if the outside temperature rises ... or if the ammonia eats through the tank," according to the National Drug Intelligence Center. Deteriorated tank valves may also leak or break, "causing the hazardous gas to be released."

And a fertilizer industry report on theft of anhydrous ammonia warns that meth makers may injure themselves while trying to steal ammonia. "Ammonia can be stored in either refrigerated or pressurized tanks," according to the report, distributed by the Louisiana Ammonia Producers, a group of seven companies (including Cytec Industries in Jefferson Parish) that accounts for 40 percent of the U.S. production of ammonia.

Adds the federal Drug Intelligence Center report: "Ammonia stored under pressure is in a liquid form, but converts to gas when leaked into the air. In this gaseous form, anhydrous ammonia has a strong attraction to water. ... The eyes, lungs and skin are at greatest risk. ... Most deaths from anhydrous ammonia are caused by severe damage to the throat and lungs. When large amounts are inhaled, the throat swells shut and the victim suffocates. Exposure to vapors or liquids can also cause blindness."

As a result of the risk, the ammonia and fertilizer industries warn that "strict engineering codes exist for all anhydrous equipment. Ammonia should be handled only by people trained in the proper procedures and properties of ammonia."

And in the "meth labs," even the best-trained chemist might suffer from impaired judgment brought on by drug-induced sleep deprivation, experts say. Unlike terrorists, who are motivated by politics or religious extremism, meth-makers are spurred by profit and a need for speed. Meth abuse often occurs in binge cycles and violent behavior may be induced during the most dangerous phase of the cycle, known as "tweaking," according to the National Drug Intelligence Center.

"Typically, during this stage, the abuser has not slept in 3 to 15 days and is irritable and paranoid," the report states.

"It is bad stuff to start with, but when you are talking about hazardous materials, this stuff is volatile," says Sgt. Davis of the State Police. "It's really shaky in the wrong hands."

Some environmentalists, whose ranks typically do not include large numbers of law enforcement, say the feds are not exaggerating the threat. "It's a dangerous process if you don't know what you're doing," says Darryl Malek-Wiley, chair of the New Orleans Group Sierra Club. "Unfortunately, some folks that are making the illegal drugs are also partaking of the illegal drugs and things get crazy."

Often at odds with the chemical industry over its own environmental record, Malek-Wiley concurs with the ammonia producers' assessment of the dangers of meth labs and anhydrous ammonia in the hands of speed freaks. He adds that toxic by-products of meth-making are not just illegally made, but illegally dumped.

"It's a nasty process," he says. "And the fact that they are making illegal drugs, they are, for sure, not reporting to the DEQ."

So what should be done? "A good environmentalist or good citizen should be reporting these types of activities to local law enforcement or state police," Malek-Wiley says, going on to warn area residents who enjoy the outdoors to stick to national parks and forests, lest they stumble onto a clandestine meth lab in the woods.

"Meth manufacturers like to find places that are out of the way," he says. "If anybody stumbles onto that type of operation, they are probably in danger. These people are probably armed. They are stealing the chemicals to make these drugs, then selling the drugs, so it is almost all profit -- like the old moonshine stills. Try to follow trails that already laid out rather than cutting cross-country."

Malek-Wiley acknowledges that his opposition to meth labs marks one of those rare issues that puts the Sierra Club alongside the chemical industry. But not every environmental group sees meth labs as a call to the barricades -- at least not when compared to toxic emissions by the chemical industry itself.

"On the list of priorities, it's not much by Louisiana standards where our environmental problems deal in millions of pounds per year," says Gary Miller, chemical engineer with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN).

Whatever its own faults, the ammonia and fertilizer industries have clearly taken a more aggressive role than most environmental groups to address the new biothreat to rural and suburban areas alike.

"Several years ago, when meth labs moved down from the Midwest, the national fertilizer institutes let us know," says Jim Harris, spokesperson of Louisiana Ammonia Producers. "State Police came to our meetings to give us a breakdown of what they were seeing in north Louisiana. The ammonia and fertilizer producers began networking with law enforcement and the Louisiana Farm Bureau, distributing information to farmers on how to protect their ammonia tanks from thieves."

In 1998, Harris adds, the national Agricultural Retailers Association and the Fertilizer Institute joined forces "to try and develop an additive to our ammonia that would make it unusable for the production meth."

They're still looking. Meanwhile, although the country might understandably be occupied with other threats, those who monitor meth labs can testify to the old axiomatic warning: "speed kills."

click to enlarge This photo taken by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration show a meth lab in the New Orleans area. One local DEA agent says there has been a 'dramatic' increase in the number of meth labs in southeast Louisiana over the last three years.
  • This photo taken by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration show a meth lab in the New Orleans area. One local DEA agent says there has been a 'dramatic' increase in the number of meth labs in southeast Louisiana over the last three years.
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