Up to no good: Ohio farms tempting drug makers

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SALEM, Ohio – A siphoning hose, foot prints, broken valves.

These are just a few of the dead giveaways that a thief has been on your farm. No, he or she is not after money, the machinery or the animals. They want your anhydrous ammonia.

“What?” you might ask, “Why would they want my fertilizer?”

The answer is easy: The thieves are using the anhydrous ammonia to manufacture methamphetamines – an illegal drug, also known as speed and crank.

This is the only ingredient needed for making the drug that can’t be bought at a grocery store. Instead, it is stolen from farms that inject it into the soil to fertilize fields.

These clandestine, illegal meth labs, which send runners to steal the nitrogen fertilizer, are popping up across Ohio, said Lieutenant Randy Sanders with the Ross County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. 23 Pipeline Task Force.

Several years ago, theft and meth labs were practically nonexistent in Ohio, Sanders said, but it is now a nightly occurrence in southern Ohio. And, although much of this illegal behavior has been caught, Sanders said about 95 percent goes unreported.

Unfortunately, this fascination with anhydrous ammonia isn’t limited to just southern Ohio.

On the farm. Jack Giulitto, a dairy farmer in Portage County, Ohio, had not had any problems with his anhydrous ammonia tank for almost 20 years. Not so anymore.

Within the last year, he estimates that 1 percent of his anhydrous ammonia has been stolen. It’s not that 1 percent would make or break Giulitto’s farm, it’s the safety issues surrounding tampering with the precarious product.

At less than 20 degrees Fahrenheit, anhydrous ammonia can cause damage if not handled properly. It gravitates toward moisture and will cause serious burns to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract through an almost instant freeze-drying process when it comes in contact with body tissue, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

Exposure can also cause corrosive burns, blindness and lung damage.

Incrimination. Giulitto might not have known about the theft, but the thieves started coming in the winter and left their footprints in the snow all around his tank.

Then he started noticing the hoses near the storage tank were not wound up, which is how he usually leaves them. And he found drug paraphernalia, he said.

Giulitto is in compliance with Ohio’s law requiring his storage tank being locked, but things got desperate and he had to add another lock. Then the thieves targeted his five 1,000-gallon nurse tanks.

Things got so bad that Giulitto had to take all the nurse tanks and put them inside a rented barn so the thieves could not access them.

The situation is getting worse all the time, said Bill Goodman, feed and fertilizer specialist with Ohio Department of Agriculture. Five years ago, this type of theft was only heard about – in states like Iowa and Missouri – but now it’s filtering its way to Ohio, he said.

Neighborly concern. It isn’t necessarily the loss of his fertilizer nor the loss of money he’s incurred that most concerns Giulitto. Instead it’s the safety of his neighbors.

If the thieves got desperate enough to pull out the plug in the tank, the anhydrous ammonia would come rushing out, potentially threatening his entire neighborhood in clouds of toxic gas.

He also pointed out that these thieves probably don’t realize the pressure in these tanks. If they resorted to pulling out the plug, there would be no way they could put it back in until all the anhydrous had been released, at a pressure more than a fire hose.

“It’s like playing with dynamite,” Giulitto said. “Not that it’s explosive, but if it’s released into the atmosphere, you can’t breathe at all.”

Liquid anhydrous ammonia expands 850 times when released into the surrounding air and can form large vapor clouds, according to an Environmental Protection Agency alert.

Although anhydrous ammonia costs approximately $200 a ton for agriculture purposes, it costs about $300 a gallon on the black market, the alert reported.

In a rush. Lt. Sanders said the thieves aren’t even waiting until they get home to begin making the methamphetamines; they begin on the spot, meaning on the farm.

Whether on the farm, in a basement or in an old camper, these meth labs – where the anhydrous ammonia is mixed with other ingredients such as batteries and paint thinner – can crop up just about anywhere.

Recently, Sanders said a man was caught in southern Ohio who had his lab in the trunk of his car. He moved from place to place and as he found anhydrous ammonia, he was able to make the drugs in the back of his vehicle.

In some cases, the thieves have stolen an entire nurse tank, which can mean a year’s supply of the drug’s main ingredient for everyone involved, Sanders said.

Usually, though, such a small amount is needed for the drug’s production that farmers never know it’s gone. In fact, most don’t know about the pilfering unless the thieves were careless and left incriminating evidence.

These thefts are “middle-of-the-night” operations, Sanders said. The methamphetamines keeps them up for days at a time and when they think no one is around, they go looking for tanks.

Sanders estimates that his area task force has closed approximately 40 meth labs in the last year, although Highland County, Ohio, is by far the worst in the state, he said.

Operating a meth lab is a felony two and carries mandatory jail time, Sanders said. Stealing anhydrous ammonia is a felony three and jail time depends on the circumstances.

Thefts are tracked by local authorities, however, the Drug Enforcement Administration is called if there is a meth lab, he said. Funding for a lab’s cleanup goes through the federal government.

According to Koch Crime Institute information, this cleanup can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $150,000.

What to do. Jack Giulitto did the right thing after realizing his farm was being hit. He called the local authorities and has extra patrols near his farm. They are on alert and know to watch for anyone who is near the tank.

Anhydrous ammonia tanks are closely regulated in Ohio, Goodman said. Every dealer or individual with a storage tank must be registered and inspected yearly. Ohio has 234 registered storage sites.

If you suspect anhydrous theft, call your local authorities.

(You can contact Kristy Alger at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at kalger@farmanddairy.com.)

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