Pubdate: Sun, 14 Jul 2002
Source: Clarion-Ledger, The (MS)
Copyright: 2002 The Clarion-Ledger
Author: David Bruser, of the McComb Enterprise-Journal
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


McCOMB - On a gravel patch just down the road from Gene Seale's Meadville 
home sit several anhydrous ammonia tanks, beckoning a new breed of criminal 
- - crystal methamphetamine cooks.

They come in the night, drug-addled, desperate and usually armed. Without 
invitation, they drive past the house and pull up beside the big, white 
tanks. They need the chemical to make their dope: volatile people handling 
a volatile chemical.

"One thief stabbed a deputy sheriff in the hand with a screwdriver," said 
Seale, 69. "Some of them get violent. Some of them got guns too."

Despite the risks, Seale and other area farmers and farm suppliers watch 
the night, hoping to catch a thief and send a message to the meth community.

But so far they're fighting a costly and losing battle.

Anhydrous ammonia - only available in bulk to farmers and to businesses 
that use ammonia refrigeration systems - is the cheapest source of nitrogen 
for Seale and other area farmers, who inject the chemical into the soil. 
The fertilizer is typically stored in 1,000-gallon tanks that look like 
miniature white submarines.

Franklin County authorities estimate thieves have stolen from Seale more 
than 30 times in the last few years. One thief traveled from Alabama, 
lawmen say, aided by directions posted on the Internet by another meth cook.

In other parts of southwest Mississippi and southeast Louisiana, anhydrous 
thefts are on the rise.

District Attorney Ronnie Harper said that since 1998 he's heard of about 40 
anhydrous thefts in his district, which includes Amite, Franklin, Wilkinson 
and Adams counties. He knew of no thefts before 1998.

The Environmental Protection Agency, farm insurance companies and others 
recommend a variety of safeguards against anhydrous theft, such as locks on 
the valves and fencing around the tanks. But Jerry Fruge and Dean Thomas, 
both owners of farm supply stores in Franklinton, La., think such 
safeguards a waste.

"You could put up a chain-link fence," Fruge said. "What would that take? A 
pair of snips."

An exasperated Thomas agreed. "As for security, you might as well forget 
it. You can lock it, get a guard dog. They'll cut the lock, kill the dog 
with rat poison to get it."

Farmers typically use anhydrous to fertilize corn crops in the spring and 
pastures in the fall.

The pressurized liquid freeze-dries skin. When leaked from a tank, the cold 
liquid becomes a toxic gas that arrests respiratory systems and burns 
lungs. A large leak can aerosolize, or form a cloud made of small liquid 

In March 2000, a botched meth theft caused anhydrous fumes to spew out of a 
tank valve in Lincoln County near Interstate 55. Twenty people needed 
medical attention.

Thomas, owner of Circle T Fertilizer & Seed Co., an anhydrous supplier to 
numerous Mississippi farmers, said recent thefts at his tank storage 
facility and the threat of meth cookers causing a hazardous spill have 
contributed to increased insurance premiums.

Thomas pays $60,000 per year to insure his 60 two-ton tanks, up 100 percent 
from a few years ago. He said he passes the added expense along to the 
farmers and is considering ceasing his anhydrous business altogether.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Ariel