Meth recipe for disaster

By JANICE PODSADA

Herald Writer

Someone is stealing ammonia from local food processing plants and cold storage facilities — and it’s not Mr. Clean.

Since the passage of a new state law and a change in who licensed distributors sell to, ammonia has become a prime target for theft in Snohomish County.

Anhydrous ammonia, which is 99.5 percent pure, is a hot item on the black market because it’s a vital ingredient in the production of methamphetamine.

Used as a coolant for commercial refrigeration systems, the ammonia, when purchased from a distributor, costs about 45 cents a gallon.

But on the black market, five gallons will sell for $400.

Five gallons cooks about $20,000 worth of methamphetamine. Five gallons is more than enough to maim, blind or kill anyone nearby.

When thieves break open the valves and tap into commercial ammonia storage tanks they endanger everyone in the area, said Maurice Greiner, a member of a national board that sets industry standards for handling ammonia.

"These people are putting it into (propane) bottles that were never designed to hold ammonia," Greiner said.

"Those vessels can rupture and explode and cause a devastating explosion to people in the surrounding area."

On farms, ammonia is used as a fertilizer. But it’s likely to be stored in a tank in the middle of a cabbage or wheat field — far from populated areas.

Food processing plants, however, locate inside industrial parks, near neighborhoods, in cities and towns.

When "cooks," who hole up in houses, apartments and motels need fuel for their meth making, the processing plants are a convenient source of ammonia. No need to drive to the farm to tap a tank.

It’s like stealing gas.

Safety regulations require that ammonia tanks be located outside.

Labeled "ammonia," by law, in bright red letters, situated a few feet away from the food processing plant building, the tanks are easily accessible to thieves.

Because of fire safety codes, the storage tanks cannot be fenced off, because fire departments require easy access to the tanks.

Ammonia theft from food processing plants and cold storage units took a dramatic increase a few months ago.

About that time, food processors locally and across the state noticed that their tanks were being tapped, about the same time a new state law went into effect.

The law made the illegal possession, transport or storage of ammonia in other than a factory container, a felony.

Before the laws changed, anhydrous ammonia could be purchased in small amounts — less than 100 gallons at a time. Meat markets and other businesses used 100 gallons to cool their smaller refrigeration units.

But when police discovered that meth cooks were using ammonia to make the drug, distributors were asked not to sell it in such small quantities.

"Up until this meth thing came along, the only people wanting ammonia was for fertilization or refrigeration facilities," Greiner said.

State-certified ammonia distributors now say they’ll only sell the compressed, liquefied gas to well-known, certified commercial customers, and only in large quantities of 500 or more gallons at a time.

"We are now requiring background checks unless we have a long history with the company," said Scott Wyatt, owner of Wyatt Refrigeration in Everett, which services refrigeration units in Snohomish County and the Northwest, including California, Oregon and Alaska.

Wyatt gets plenty of unsolicited requests to pump a few gallons of his wares into an illegal container.

"We have people calling to buy 25 gallons," Wyatt said. "And telling me they’ll bring in their propane tank so I can fill it. You can guess what they’re doing with it."

Because meth cooks can no longer purchase ammonia in small amounts, they steal it.

Thieves have hit food processors in Stanwood, Marysville, Everett, Mukilteo, Edmonds, where those businesses are often located just around the corner from schools, neighborhoods or parks.

"In the last few months, every one of my customers has been hit," Wyatt said.

Using proper safety procedures, transferring ammonia is an exact science. Workers wear protective gear and goggles. The tanks designed to hold ammonia are built to withstand the compressed liquefied gas. Pressure gauges and special valve monitors are used to measure flow and to determine when a tank is filled to capacity.

Ammonia needs room to expand, so the tank can’t be filled to the brim.

"A five-gallon tank shouldn’t be filled more with more than 4.1 gallons to allow for expansion in the heat," Greiner said. "If they fill it in the evening and the temperature rises, it’s will expand and rupture."

Standard, commercial tanks have pressure release valves on them that adjust for pressure changes in ammonia.

When thieves go after ammonia, however, they take few precautions. They’ll siphon off 5, 10 or 15 gallons into makeshift containers, such as propane bottles or tanks.

Those containers are time bombs ready to explode. Ammonia is so corrosive it can dissolve the brass fittings on a propane bottle in a few weeks. With those gone, the bottle becomes a bomb.

Five gallons can blow up a living room. Ten or fifteen gallons could affect an entire neighborhood, Greiner said.

These thieves are dangerous, said Dave Morris, with Crest Construction, a state-authorized contractor who decontaminates meth labs.

"What if someone is in the middle of tapping into a tank, and they’re startled or confronted by someone?"

A worker at a Mukilteo plant recently came face-to-face with an ammonia thief hard at work, in the early morning hours.

"If these people are startled, and they run and leave a valve open, then a spill will ensue," Morris said.

How dangerous the spill becomes depends on wind and weather conditions, and where it occurs.

"The more open and separate this spill is from anything else, the better the chance the gas is going to dissipate," Morris said.

But if it doesn’t disperse, the air is charged; inhaling high concentrations of ammonia is deadly.

"You’ve got a chemical attack going on," Morris said.

Every two to three weeks, thieves tap into the ammonia tank, said the manager at a Mukilteo food processing plant.

Businesses have begun installing new security systems to protect their tanks.

Those systems include motion detectors, strobe lights and locks to discourage theft and prevent thieves from wrenching open the valves.

Still, thieves are known to break the locks.

"It’s an itch that’s got to be scratched," Morris said. "These people are crazy. Danger isn’t a concern when they need this stuff for cooking."

Wyatt has stopped storing ammonia at his place of business, moving it to a secure location.

"We’ve put a sign on the front of the building, like the kind you’d see at 7-Eleven — ‘We don’t carry more than $100.’ We’ve got one that says, ‘We don’t carry ammonia.’"

The increase in theft has ammonia distributors, food processors and law enforcement worried.

"Before this happened there was an industry standard for storing and transferring ammonia and you didn’t violate it," Morris said.

"We’ve seen oddball hoses lying around to transfer ammonia that were never meant for it — a garden hose."

Theft is widespread. Ammonia is the fourth most common chemical used in the world.

"It’s a very safe industry. But these meth guys are making it hazardous for us," Wyatt said. "In the wrong hands, ammonia is very dangerous stuff"

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