On a beautiful August day, ocean breezes flit through a small room in the Fort Bragg county building. A group of about thirty people, more than half clothed in the green uniform of the California State Park rangers, have gathered to learn about the social and environmental cataclysm of methamphetamine. With striking big blue eyes and a wiry build, instructor Wayne Briley is a bundle of energy. And well he is, because Briley, one of Mendocino County’s three Hazardous Materials officers, is on call seven days a week. On any week he may get up at three am to examine leaking drums dumped by the roadside. And he hasn’t a clue what he may find on a call—just that whatever he finds could kill him.
Briley’s PowerPoint presentation is really a series of slides, some so horrific that previous audiences have begged him to remove them. He has deleted a very few, but he knows that what he imparts today will save lives, both of those in his audience and those his audience serves. He’ll only soft-pedal the truth so far.
First he rehearses the basics with the troopers. What should they do when they find something they can’t identify on state park land? Call 911 and say Haz-Mat. That will summon Briley or one of his two partners. The rest of the lecture consists of explaining why that call is vital, and why the troopers, all of whom seem like can-do types, need to stay far away from those 55-gallon drums or plastic carboys.
According to the Rural Assistance Center, methamphetamine is a stimulant that strongly activates the central nervous system. It can be smoked, snorted, orally ingested, and injected. It comes in a powder form that looks like granulated crystals and in a smokeable rock form known as “ice.” The drug has such ugly side effects that these have gained their own names, such as crank bugs—the illusion that bugs are crawling under the skin (users develop wounds from scratching) and meth mouth. Meth users often become paranoid and violent, and those who cook meth—or make it—deal with fire and explosive and caustic chemicals.
Briley describes a typical call. A source complains that someone is dumping in a river. When Briley and his team arrive, they find glass lab mantles floating like big bubbles in the shallows, which alerts them to the presence of “a gigantic meth lab dump. At that point,” he explains, they “haz-cat” it—or categorize the material as to its hazards. And lucky they do, because they find a drum of white phosphorous, used in making the drug. “It is air-reactive,” Briley says. “If we’d unscrewed the lid, that area would have disappeared, and us with it.”
The vast majority of dumped drums contain waste oil or antifreeze. “But you can’t open these things anymore,” Briley says. “We need to get suited up and put on respirators. That’s what meth has done for us.” He describes opening a container that had washed up at a vineyard property. A red cloud wafted past his respirator. “It was nitric acid,” he says. “It would have taken off my face.”
As if anyone needed more, Briley points out that the bases used in meth cooking are worse than the acids. “Acids are gonna burn, and you’ll run to the sink,” he says. “The bases burn too, but then you forget about it, ’cause it’s burned through your nerves, and it just keeps burning down through the tissue.” A few slides of ugly spreading wounds on presumably dead individuals demonstrate this effect. By now everyone in the audience is on tenterhooks; after all, they patrol state land daily, often alone. Between marijuana grow scenes operated by foreign cartels, meth cooks, wildlife poachers, and the usual crazies, it’s a mission that grows more dangerous every year. (See related stories on pages 9 and 16.)
Approximately 95 percent of the material used in production is discarded as waste. The cook must have ephredrine, which comes from cold medicines. Cooks used to buy every package off drugstore shelves; now consumers must sign for a single package of cold medication. “That is just an inconvenience,” Briley says. “It’s slowed it down a little, but people order thousands of packages online from Canada or China.”
All these pills must be processed to get at the pure ephredrine within, which means cooking them with a solvent, the hotter the better. “The best meth has a nice little cancer component,” Briley notes: toluene, benzene, xylene are all used and then discarded. A binder pit—a dumping spot for the white gooey stuff that binds the pills—can be yards across. The pits are the most benign waste discarded by cooks; some of the rest is so dangerous that it is categorized as IDLH, or immediately dangerous to life and health, meaning that fifty percent of those exposed to such chemicals will die.
Briley describes the process, which goes from bad to worse, with multiple pourings-down-sinks and dousings with solvents. The cooking uses red phosphorous and iodine, and the cook must pay careful attention that the temperature does not rise over 290 degrees, when it will turn into white phosphorous and explode. “If you go into a house, and the walls or the sink is stained red, it’s a lab,” he concludes.
And that is bad news for anyone who owns the building. In Minnesota, state officials tested the migration of the chemicals used in cooks. The chemicals go through paint and into wallboard. As they cool, they stick to the paper on the backside of wallboard. When the room temperature rises, those chemicals migrate back through the wallboard into the room, sometimes for months, years, or as Briley puts it, “forever.” “You could potentially have to take down a house,” Briley says. “The whole house is toxic waste.”
New state laws require that all of the materials that were exposed to the gases must be removed.ÊBriley points out that removing the wallboard near the cook is the easy part. Costly tests must be performed throughout the house to make sure that the gases have not reached other areas. Between the costs of tests, rebuilding affected areas, and paying for the transport of materials by a licensed hazardous waste hauler, cleanup could cost more than the house is worth.
Cooks pour the mess—caustic and carcinogenic— into streams, down sinks, and into storm drains or gutters, contaminating groundwater, wells, sewer systems, fields, yards, and bodies of water. Since meth can be cooked in a matter of hours in small spaces—even the back of a pickup or a storage unit—it can leave its deadly, dangerous residue almost anywhere. “Don’t assume because it’s an expensive neighborhood that you’re safe,” Briley cautions.
How might you become exposed to such chemicals? “You’ve probably rented a motel room that was used as a cook,” Briley says blandly. Some chains employ the equivalent of a private haz-mat/cleanup crew that travels from town to town. When a manager realizes a room was used as a cook, the team is called in; they take the leftover chemicals and waste to a toxic waste site, then remove all the wallboard in the room down to the studs, clean up, and then reinstall new wallboard and paint. Briley points out that landlords and motels are responsible for illness caused by the detritus or chemical migration of a cook.
Briley describes how cooks sometimes pour sulfuric acid and rock salt into the containers that are used for propane gas. The reaction makes hydrogen chloride gas. Eventually those valves and cylinders deteriorate. “If you roll it over, and there’s a little rust, what if it rusts through right then? One breath will knock you down, and the second will kill you.” A final slide shows the dollar amounts: a 22-liter mantle—which can be cooked overnight in a motel room—can yield the maker approximately three pounds of meth, or $40,000.
As the lights come up, everyone is haunted by a single question. One woman finally voices it: “But what can be done?”
“I don’t know,” Briley says. “I really don’t know.”