Evacuation By Meth

This ran as the tabloid cover on October 28, 2000


BYLINE: Dawn Fallik; Of The Post-Dispatch


LENGTH: 1450 word

Missouri state Trooper Aaron Harrison caught a whiff of the burning, nauseating smell minutes before he saw the vapors escape from the tank.

The unmistakable odor of ammonia -- like an overripe cat-litter box -- filled the air at the Co-op Service Center, a farming cooperative about 120 miles south of St. Louis.

"Something's leaking somewhere," Harrison said, letting his nose lead the way around the 30 white tanks dotting the grounds.

In an earlier search of the co-op's perimeter, Harrison had found methamphetamine-making paraphernalia, includ-ing empty propane tanks, rubber hoses and soda bottles cut to be used as filters. Now he hunted for another item that drug-making thieves increasingly leave behind: toxic ammonia fumes.

After a few more minutes, Harrison found the leak -- someone had broken into an ammonia tank, left the main valve open and released the ammonia, a liquid that turns into a gas in the open air.

Made with cold pills, fuel cleanser and coffee filters, methamphetamine is the current drug of choice in Missouri.

Originally used by soldiers to increase endurance, the drug is cheap to make and provides a long high which makes users stay awake for days.

The only ingredient meth "cookers" can't buy at the supermarket is anhyd rous ammonia, which is not diluted by water like the household version. The cookers hire "gasmen" to break into co-ops, fertilizer factories and barns to steal a few gallons of the ammonia, usually used by farmers to add nitrogen to soil.

Farmers pay pennies a gallon to rent 1,000-gallon tanks. "Cookers" will pay $ 500 for a gallon of ammonia: They only need a few teaspoons to make a typical 4-ounce batch.

But while ammonia is safely used in the ground, released into the air it can be a dangerous and sometimes deadly chemical.

It is considered toxic by inhalation because it is so cold -- with a boiling point of minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit -- that a deep breath of ammonia can burn the lungs. The chemical sucks the water out of skin, and contact can result in horrifying and sometimes fatal burns.

Those warnings don't mean much to those who need the ammonia to make their drug.

What police call intentional "releases" due to tampering have resulted in evacuations, injuries and fatalities across Missouri.

As meth production increases, so do fears that a catastrophic leak might send a large toxic cloud over a neighbor-hood.

Missouri Department of Health statistics show that from 1994 through 1999, the state had 189 releases of ammonia -- the most of any single chemical in the past five years. Illinois is seeing the problem as well, although to a far less ex-tent than Missouri.

Many more leaks go unreported, environmental officials said.

"We've been fortunate that there haven't been more instances where people have been hurt," said Randy Carter, an environmental specialist with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.


Awakened to danger

Place: Pleasant Hill, Mo.

Date: Feb. 28.

Time: 4 a.m.

Thieves break into a 1,000-gallon ammonia tank at West Central Agricultural Services, just southwest of town, about 30 miles south of Kansas City.

Interrupted by police, the thieves drop a hose attached to the tank. They run -- not bothering to shut off the valve. More than 200 gallons of ammonia spill. The vapors don't evaporate in the cold air. Instead, the ammonia forms a cloud headed toward town.

About 250 people live in the path of the cloud. Pleasant Hill Fire Chief John Smith decides to evacuate them.

Police and fire officials drive through town, go door to door and awaken residents by yelling through bullhorns.

About 150 people move to a church until the danger passes. The rest flee to friends and family living outside the cloud's path.

Melissa Gentry heard about the evacuation on the television news and saw police coming down her street.

"All the news said was that there was a leak and half the town was being evacuated," she recalled recently. "When I saw that, we packed up, grabbed the dog and went to my mom's."

Pleasant Hill was lucky. The cloud resulted in only five minor injuries. Among them: Assistant Fire Chief Rick Pryor, who was dec ontaminated at the fire station because of skin irritation.

School drill in Wentzville

Most meth-related ammonia releases occur in rural counties because that's where the farmer cooperatives are.

Sandra Shields can see a cooperative and the ammonia tanks from her house in Chilhowee, Mo., about 70 miles southeast of Kansas City.

"Whenever there's a leak, it comes right to us," she said. "It was getting so bad, we were getting up in the middle of the night because we smelled the air."

Shields said her eyes and throat often burn because of the ammonia in the air. She worries about her animals out in the pasture.

Potential problems exist in cities and suburbs as well.

Wentzville Middle School is about a mile from MFA Agri Services ammonia tanks, where a leak due to vandalism was reported to state officials as recently as June 26.

One Saturday last month, teachers, administrators and staff performed an anhydrous ammonia drill -- pretending that the leak occurred during school hours with its 839 students present.

Staff shut down the air conditioning. Teachers taped off the windows and put rags beneath the doors.

"It's not just a practice for the school; it's for the community," said principal Kelvin McMillin. Several agencies participated in the drill, including the police and fire departments and the National Guard hazardous materials division.

If a major leak occurred, students would be brought in from outdoors and would stay in the classrooms until the cloud passed, McMillin said. Clothing in the rooms would be taped around the windows and doors. If ammonia fumes seeped into the room, students would cover their mouths with wet clothes to help breathing.

On the front line

When the leaks started, Ag Distributors manager Byron Pfeffer added locks on his ammonia tanks and cut off the hoses.

Then he tried 24-hour security.

Finally, he installed security cameras around the tanks at the farm stor e in Kennett, Mo., in the Missouri Bootheel.

But six years after he started a war against the thieves, Pfeffer has given up the battle.

"For a while we would even spend the night here and watch for them," he said. "Now we put in surveillance cam-eras, and we see them come and go. Sometimes, it's two or three nights a week."

The cameras can't identify who the thieves are, but Pfeffer said the tapes at least allow him to know when they've broken a valve or left equipment in the field.

Pfeffer is not alone in his frustration. Locks, gates and lights don't seem to stop thieves and, in some cases, they in-crease the damage costs as vandals try to break in.

Mike Markway, manager of the MFA Agri Services cooperative in Ste. Genevieve, said even after he emptied his tanks, vandals still broke into them.

"After the (growing) season, we put locks on them all, and that seemed to help for about a month. Then they started cutting the chains," Markway said. "One weekend they totally destroyed a lock somehow. I think they beat them with a hammer."

Agriculture and law enforcement officials said they try to educate farmers and farmer cooperatives about ammonia theft, but if the thieves want the ammonia, they are going to find a way to get it.

Because the amount of ammonia needed by vandals is small, most farmers are not financially hurt by the thefts. Several co-op owners said they don't even notice that ammonia is gone unless the thieves don't hang the hoses back up or there is a leak.

One possible answer to the ammonia theft problem is to change the formula of ammonia so that it can still be used as a nitrogen source by farmers but not as a cooling agent for meth, said Floyd Gaibler, vice president for government affairs for the Agricultural Retailers Association in Washington.

Iowa State University is now trying to develop such a compound, he said.

If that happens, cookers will just move onto another chemical, predicts "Gary," an ammonia thief who asked not to be identified by his real name because he now works with police to fight the problem.

"If they can't get ammonia, they'll just use freon," he said. "They're already moving that way.

"And freon is worse because it has the same dangers as ammonia, but it doesn't have the smell. So you inhale it. Your lungs get burned, but you don't know until it's too late."


From 1994 through 1999, 189 ammonia releases were reported in Missouri. The map shows a breakdown by county.

Platte County -- November 1997. A truck carrying 1,000 gallons of ammonia overturned, puncturing the tank and re-leaseing an unknown amount into the atmosphere. Twenty residents were evacuated from their homes for three hours until the area was secured and the ammonia had dissipated.

Dresden (Pettis) -- Aug. 26, 1999. More than 300 people were evacuated from the Tyson Food plant and the surround-ing area, about 70 miles west of Jefferson City. More than 1,000 pounds of ammonia was released. The release was discovered about 4:35 a.m. No injuries were reported.

Carthage (Jasper) -- March 6, 1999. More than 1,500 pounds of ammonia was released from Specialty Foods, a frozen food processor, after vandals tampered with a tank after midnight. The ammonia spilled onto the parking lot. There were no injuries.

Herculaneum (Jefferson) -- May 12, 1999. A 39-year-old man was killed after a fire extinguisher filled with anhydrous ammonia exploded in his lap. The man was a passenger in a car driving on Interstate 55 in Jefferson County. The driver also suffered severe burns. A firefighter, a paramedica and a citizen trying to help all suffered minor injuries and were treated and released.

St. Louis -- Feb. 19, 1994. One person was killed when he was sprayed in the face with anhydrous ammonia. He and two others were lifting a load of ammonia onto a barge when a valve was jostled open. One employee was treated at a hospital for chemical burns and released. The other was admitted for respiratory irritation, chemical burns and vomiting.

Source: Missouri Department of Health Office of Surveillance and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.