Skip to comments.A darker side of pot growing Diesel, oil contamination a slippery, but serious problem
Posted on 06/17/2003 3:30:04 AM PDT by chance33_98
A darker side of pot growing Diesel, oil contamination a slippery, but serious problem
By John Driscoll The Times-Standard
The cost of a pound of marijuana on the street may not reflect the steep cost to the land where it was grown and to people living nearby.
With the ongoing trend of moving big marijuana grows indoors, drug enforcement agents are frequently uncovering serious environmental contamination problems.
Mostly, the pollution is from diesel generators used to power energy-hogging sodium lights and ventilation equipment needed to grow high potency marijuana indoors. A below-standard diesel storage tank, and improper disposal of motor oil, can lead to soil and groundwater pollution that can cost thousands of dollars to clean up -- and in some circumstances is impossible to remedy at all.
The contamination has become more and more a part of criminal cases stemming from pot raids. Often, it's the owner of the property -- perhaps leasing it, even unknowingly, to pot growers -- who ends up responsible.
Just how widespread or serious the problem is depends on who you ask. Police, prosecutors and game wardens insist it is huge. Others claim that isn't the case; they say that most growers are responsible, and many don't even use the diesel generators that tend to be at the center of the problem.
It's difficult to get a handle on the scope of the issue, and whether people irresponsibly using generators for otherwise legal purposes may be just as big a problem.
Everywhere we go
"It's everywhere we go," said Ron Prose with the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, a division of the California Department of Justice. "I'm not talking about the guys with four plants in the closet. I'm talking about the guys who are like millionaires."
In 2001, a pilot program was launched with sheriffs' departments in California and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to work on indoor grows. Prose said that drug enforcement agents frequently found grows in Southern Humboldt County and Mendocino County that used diesel generators, sometimes running them off underground tanks. The tanks were often leaking or connected with poorly coupled hoses to the generators. The growers dumped oil or haphazardly tossed oil containers on the ground, Prose said.
Soon, county prosecutors and the Department of Toxic Substances Control began to take notice. Today, there are several cases pending in Humboldt County Superior Court.
The problem is, the growers themselves often aren't the owners of the property.
"Many times we deal with the owners, given that the perpetrators aren't available," said Luis Rivera of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Depending on the circumstances, when large numbers of buildings are erected and significant changes are made to the property, that may seem fair. But occasionally, an absentee landlord really doesn't know what's happening on his property.
"If you or I changed our oil and dumped it in the back yard, we'd be in a lot of trouble," said Sgt. Wayne Hanson, who leads the Drug Enforcement Unit for the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department.
Hanson said it is often tough to prove who the suspects are. In one case, contamination from a grow was shuffled off to an unsuspecting property buyer, who is now trying to recoup cleanup costs from the original owner, Hanson said.
Rivera admitted that it's not possible to put a score on the problem, since a survey of the issue isn't readily available. But he said the board staff only deals with the worst problems, and even a minor spill can prove troublesome locally.
"The impact is immediate and very perceptible to the people around it," Rivera said.
Oil and diesel can find its way into groundwater and into drinking water, and into creeks when it rains.
The county Environmental Health Department responds to spills that may threaten drinking water supply. Department Director Brian Cox said that environmental health responded to eight separate spills related to marijuana grows in 2001. Since then, he believes the number has come down.
Where the problem seems most acute, in Southern Humboldt, Cox said he believes education has gone a long way.
"I think the residents in Southern Humboldt care and they don't want to see degradation of their environment," Cox said.
Just bad apples
That's what Richard Jay Moller thinks, too. A well-connected Southern Humboldt criminal defense attorney, Moller believes poorly managed fuel and oil is the exception rather than the rule.
While he agreed that some contamination takes place, he said that many growers seem to have made the switch to cleaner propane generators. (Some sources say it's only because they are quieter.) It's the greedier big-time indoor growers who use diesel, he said.
"The unfortunate thing about the crackdown on outdoor growing is that it has led people indoors," Moller said.
While that argument roils law enforcement agents, it is true that many outdoor growers have gone inside, and have become increasingly sophisticated to avoid detection. Prose remembered an operation staged inside a $250,000 home with high-end lighting and ventilation systems. No one lived there, and in fact, the grow was nearly self-sufficient. A cell phone would call the caretaker if anything was amiss with the operation.
Still, Prose said, the grower's waste disposal was primitive. He merely opened a valve on the generator to let the oil spill out the window through a tube.
Moller argued that there are no doubt some bad apples. But he said that out of all the people using equipment -- for any reason -- that requires diesel and motor oil, there are a few who are not responsible.
Following their noses
Several years ago, Fish and Game Warden Larry Bruckenstein and a co-worker stumbled across a stream that smelled of diesel. The two followed their noses up the stream and the smell got stronger. At the source of the smell, they found an indoor grow and diesel leaking right into the creek.
Bruckenstein is particularly frustrated with the growers, because he says they have the money to do things right. Pot can fetch more than $3,000 per pound. A May bust in Garberville turned up what might have been $8.75 million worth, had the plants reached maturity.
The raid by the DEA, the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement and the Humboldt County Drug Task Force on three parcels found 20 buildings and 10,000 plants. The bust also netted several rifles and two all-terrain vehicles.
The equipment inside the structures was powered by two diesel generators, one 125-kilowatt and the other an 85-kilowatt generator. In this case, leaking fuel and oil caused minimal damage, according to environmental health officials.
All of the 27,000 pot plants destroyed by the task force since January were found in indoor grows. It's likely that other busts will be made once the outdoor growing season is in full swing, but indoor grows are becoming a greater percentage of the total figure. Part of that is because operators can grow three crops per year.
The biggest indoor grow bust in California history took place in 1998 on Lord-Ellis Summit off State Highway 299. About 12,000 plants were found in a house used exclusively for growing. Its five operators were reportedly making $50,000 per month.
But instead of using a small portion of that income to upgrade fuel storage, Bruckenstein said, "They cut corners at every possible chance."
If petroleum products enter state waters, the state Department of Fish and Game can prosecute both criminally and civilly. And while the regional water board can issue a cleanup and abatement order and levy stiff fines, often the mess just can't be cleaned up.
Not just growers
One manager of a Humboldt County hydroponics store, who asked not to be named, isn't convinced the problem is that severe.
He estimated that perhaps 95 percent of his customers who buy sodium and halogen lights are buying them for use on the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. grid. He knows because the 110-volt lights he sells the most of aren't compatible with diesel generators. Also, the manager said few people come in to buy a large number of lights.
He agreed that diesel pollution is most likely a problem, but added that he suspects gas stations pose an equal or greater risk. Further, he pointed at timber companies' widespread use of diesel as an additive to herbicides, which are legally sprayed over thousands of acres of timber cuts each year. That spraying is done under specific guidelines, but has caused concern in some communities.
The source said he can't imagine pot grows posing the same problem.
"It would be hard to believe that it's as big of a problem as they would want it to seem," he said. "But is the problem out there? Yeah."
Paul Hagen, Humboldt County deputy district attorney and environmental circuit prosecutor, said the problem, which he suspects is severe, really requires more investigative resources.
"It's my strong feeling, from anecdotes over time, that the problem is chronic, systemic and widespread," Hagen said. "If the true extent of contamination from generators were known, the public would be appalled."
On that end, the county's handful of drug cops already have a huge work load, and the environmental investigations that stem from their first duty are just a byproduct.
Hagen said it is difficult to get perpetrators to clean up under criminal statutes. He said the District Attorney's Office can prosecute for the disposal of toxic substances, but can't order a cleanup of the mess. That's up to a judge. And the district attorney has no authority under the California Superfund Law -- that's the domain of the Department of Toxic Substances Control.
But cleanup demands can be written into probation terms, as Deputy District Attorney Worth Dikeman is doing in one case not yet resolved. In the terms are demands that the perpetrator contact the Department of Toxic Substances Control, environmental health and the regional water board to investigate and fix the contamination. The agencies must also be reimbursed for their costs.
As Hagen pointed out, one of the main problems in making irresponsible growers responsible is a lack of resources. At a time when the state budget is on life support and the county is making heavy cuts and layoffs, it's difficult to see how effective -- on a large scale -- prosecution of environmental crimes related to indoor grows may be.
If, as environmental health's Cox suggests, education has gone a long way, perhaps the problem will begin to fade, especially if prosecutors are nudging them on, securing stiff penalties in the cases they can get their hands on.
I asked my cousins husband whos a MIT doctoral degreed greenie and a millionaire from consulting at trials for 20 years this question. If I own a big V-8 Suburban, and I drive out to my oil wells, and drain the oil from the engine, am I polluting? He said dont ask him questions like that.
It's time that these reporters stop trying to sound so knowledgeable without doing actual research. Sodium lights (of which there are two kinds, low pressure and high pressure, but low pressure is failrly rare these days) cannot be used to grow plants. They are commonly used as streetlights and in other applications where color rendition is not critical since the light they transmit is fairly monochromatic. In english, that's why streetlights are yellow. Also, sodium is about the most efficient (lumens per watt) lamp generally available.
Actually the growers use mainly metal halide lamps which are related to sodium only by the fact that they are discharge type lamps (fluorescent is also a discharge lamp). Anyway, my point is, if reporters can't get their facts striaght in the opening few paragraphs, the rest of their story is suspect.
I'll get off my soap box now, thank you for your attention.....
Absolutely. If pot-growing were legal its potential pollutants could be effectively regulated.
Heck, why would they obey the law anymore then than they do now?
Heck, why would they obey the law anymore then than they do now?
First, it probably wouldn't be the same people. Second, the cost-benefit situation would be changed---why risk legal profits to avoid the relatively small costs of legally handling pollutants?
When marijuana growing is outlawed, only outlaws will grow marijuana.
Best case is that you run the risk of serious engine damage on the way back and become a Darwin Award winner. :-)
Yeah, uhhhh...that's what I "heard" also.
Why risk massive jail time, losing everything you own, and so forth for some crack when there are plenty of legal ways to get wasted?
Why risk massive jail time, losing everything you own, and so forth for some crack
Who risks that---the dealer? He's not looking to get wasted but to make big profits.
when there are plenty of legal ways to get wasted?
"Plenty"? There's alcohol, if you're looking for a depressant and don't mind vomiting and hangovers. What are some other of these "plenty of ways"?
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