Crank callers 

Meth labs create toxic headaches in national forests

At first glance it looked like a typical campsite on U.S. Forest Service land with scattered litter, tramped-down bushes and a blackened fire ring.

But a closer inspection by a fire crew on loan from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation revealed the area—with a several hundred square feet of dead vegetation, empty canisters of household cleaners and soil stained purple —was not simply used as an overnight stop for a group of backpackers. The roadside pullout in the Flathead National Forest’s Tally Lake District, located west of Kalispell, was a dumpsite for a methamphetamine lab disposing of the toxic byproducts of drug production.

The discovery in August has become increasingly common in the vast national forests of western Montana and the Idaho panhandle. In an area known for its pristine wilderness, more and more local drug task force members and cleanup crews are finding themselves suiting up in protective suits and respirators before heading into the backcountry to investigate the clandestine labs.

During the last four years, methamphetamine production has skyrocketed on Forest Service land. In 1998, only 86 labs and dumpsites were found on federal forests. By 2000 that number climbed to 488, growing by more than 400 percent from the previous year.

In 2000, the Forest Service’s Region One, which includes Montana, the Idaho panhandle, North Dakota and western South Dakota, was second in the country with 64 labs or dumpsites. The southeast’s Region 9, particularly Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest, led the nation with 331 labs or dumpsites.

“We’ve found them on the Helena, the Kootenai, the Flathead and on the Idaho Panhandle [national forests]. They’ve been found all over the place.” says Roger Seewold, the head of Forest Service law enforcement for the northern Rockies. “People spend a couple hundred dollars and they can make a few thousand. It’s very profitable and very quick and the chances of getting caught are not that great right now.”

Dan Bauer, the Forest Service’s National Drug Enforcement Program coordinator, says there have already been about 300 labs or dumpsites catalogued this year, but does not expect a complete report until the end of the year.

“I’m guessing that number is going to go up considerably,” Bauer says. “Last year at this time we were right about the same number and we ended up with almost 500.”

The process of creating methamphetamine, a cheap stimulant that can be smoked or snorted, involves separating ephedrine from cold remedies using a variety of volatile household solvents or fertilizers. The process can take from 20 minutes to several hours, often leaving behind cans of diesel starting fluid, lye, acetone, lighter fluid, iodine, red phosphorous, anhydrous ammonia, drained batteries, Coleman camp fuel, coffee filters stained pink or propane tanks modified to hold farm fertilizers.

Once only used by backcountry marijuana growers, public lands are now playing a larger role in local drug production as law enforcement and the community becomes better at discovering the telltales signs of meth production, which include noxious fumes, discarded solvent containers and dead grass and trees from a septic system leaching toxic waste into a yard.

“We’ve become more effective at finding labs, and people are going out to use public lands like they used to do with marijuana,” says Barry Lucero, the agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Billings office. “Historically, we’d get them in their backyards and on their property and once we started doing a good job, they started moving out to public lands where they thought it was harder for law enforcement to find out who they were.”

In response, meth cooks have headed to western Montana’s sprawling public land and the isolation and lack of law enforcement it affords.

Mike Meehan, of the Northwest Drug Task Force, says the labs are typically driven into the backcountry in trailers, using campers or the open beds of pickups, and can produce about an ounce of meth, worth about $1,200.

“These labs you can set up with chemicals that you can put in a small box, ice chest or a big Rubbermaid cooler,” Meehan says. “It doesn’t take long and you can move it from place to place. You can cook in the back of a van, going down the road if you want to.”

In other cases, the drugs are cooked elsewhere and the leftover sludge is dumped on public ground. And while no one is willing to guess the number of labs operating on public lands or quantify their environmental damage, the price tag for the cleanup is easier to quantify.

Once a lab is discovered, S.I. McStay, a hazardous waste company contracted through the state, removes the materials and hauls them to a facility in Kent, Wash. The cost starts at $1,500 and can quickly increase to several thousand, says Kip McGillivray, operations manager for the Smelterville, Idaho company.

Besides the high cleanup costs, the labs also raise serious safety concerns for forest service employees who unknowingly may be working in or around such sites.

“We have safety concerns for our people because they may go out thinking they are cleaning up a campsite, when it fact the trash they’re cleaning up is from a lab,” says Ginger Swisher, patrol captain for the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.

Last summer while working on a road crew, a Forest Service employee on Tally Lake District found a cooler stashed behind a gate. When she opened the cooler, she inhaled the farm fertilizer anhydrous ammonia, which seared her lungs.

“We’ve had to remove a family from a campsite because they were camped right on a dumpsite,” Seewold says. “The concern was they were camped right were the chemicals were dumped at.”

While officials are concerned about the increased activity, Montana has been spared the more dramatic cases from other parts of the country. In June, a “super lab” that was believed to have produced 30 pounds of methamphetamine was discovered on southern Illinois’s Shawnee National Forest, within a 100 yards of a popular campground and fishing area. The previous fall another lab sparked a wildfire on the same midwestern federal forest.

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