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
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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
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
"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."