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Common Fertilizers Stolen for Drug Production
By Cara Hetland
June 26, 2000
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A common fertilizer is a new target for drug manufacturers in rural counties. Small amounts of anhydrous ammonia are used to make methamphetamine. "Meth," the powerful central nervous stimulant with a high potential for abuse and dependence is becoming more available in rural areas. Authorities are telling farmers to lock up a chemical that's typically left in the middle of the field overnight.

AMMONIA IS BEST KNOWN as a household cleaner. Eighty percent of all ammonia produced in the United States is used in agriculture as a source of nitrogen. Anhydrous Ammonia is a common and inexpensive fertilizer for corn and soybeans. Farmers who use it are trained and certified in its use because the pressurized liquid is dangerous when handled improperly. It can easily burn exposed skin.

Along South Dakota's Highway 19 just outside of Hurley 20 tanks sit at the local elevator. The tanks are 12 feet long and three feet in diameter, and clearly labeled "anhydrous ammonia". Most of these tanks, however, are empty.

Curtis Hora opens a test valve - the potent ammonia smell is enough to make your eyes water. Hora says they position the tanks along the highway as a way to prevent theft; keeping them in a well-lit area. He says he's aware of drug makers' efforts to steal the liquid fertilizer, but hasn't passed that information along to his customers because he hasn't been asked to.

"No one has come around here and said that, but through our safety meetings and through our safety people from our parent company, through magazine articles and bulletin messages, us as dealers we are becoming aware of it and I guess need to do a better job of educating our customers," Hora said.

Hora admits there's a sense of denial in the small communities like Hurley with a population of 300. People here think drugs are only a problem in the larger cities - like Sioux Falls.

Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead says, "Meth can be found in any rural community, this is not someone else's problem, it's our problem. It's not someone else's kids, it's our kids."

Milstead is passionate about fighting the war against drugs. He's seen the paranoid and violent actions of people who use meth and it worries him.

"These people are driving cars and they're walking in our grocery stores and they're in our malls and things like that," Milstead says. "If these thoughts are going through their minds and the violence is there ready to react, it's scary."

For Milstead, education is the key. He wants to target farmers, schools, parents, retail-store workers and kids not only about the dangers of methamphetamine, but also about the signs that can indicate drugs are being manufactured nearby.

For example, if a large quantity of cold medication or household cleaner is purchased, those can be ingredients in homemade "meth." If the nozzle of a propane tank is blue, that's a good clue it was used to siphon anhydrous ammonia.

Most anhydrous ammonia thefts go undetected because tanks are left in fields in the middle of nowhere and only small amounts are taken at a time. Sheriff Milstead says for every theft, there's a drug lab, and farmers are going to have to help just by paying attention.

"Has the ground been disturbed around the tank? You look for fresh tracks in the mud or in the dirt. Are the tank valves closed tightly? Look for suspicious items left near the tank such as duct tape or garden hose, bicycle inner tubes, buckets or coolers."

Milstead explains that since the street price of meth has dropped, it means there's more available. Sheriff Milstead says what scares him most is that by the time farmers know what to do to prevent thefts, drug makers will have moved on to new ways to make meth.