Iowa sees increase in anhydrous thefts

Zach Calef

The number of methampetamine labs in Iowa may be down slightly, but an increase in the theft of anhydrous ammonia in the area has prompted the Story County Sheriff’s Office to step up its combat against methamphetamine.

In the last two months, 14 anhydrous ammonia thefts have occurred in Story County, said Cpt. Gary Foster of the Story County Sheriff’s Office.

“It seems like there was a lot of activity in the last week,” he said.

Anhydrous ammonia is a chemical used as a fertilizer on Iowa farms. It is also a key ingredient in the manufacturing of methamphetamines.

Foster said methamphetamines – also referred to as meth, crank, or speed – are popular throughout the Midwest because anhydrous ammonia is so readily available.

He said most makers of the drug simply steal the chemical from mother tanks at co-ops or on farms. They can get the other ingredients such as battery acid, drain cleaner and other chemicals at local stores.

Anhydrous ammonia is easily stolen from the mother tanks, Foster said. He said the thief hooks up a hose to the valve on top of the tank and runs it to a container at the other end. The thief fills up the container and if he or she has not suffered any damage from fumes, the valve is shut off.

He said many times the thief comes in contact with the fumes, which can be extremely painful because of severe burns and lung damage.

John Tinker, manager of the Central Iowa Drug Task Force, said he can recall a time when a “guy severely burned his arms more than once and got caught because of it.”

Tinker said it is difficult to measure the amount of anhydrous ammonia thefts.

“If you’ve got 40 tanks out there, it can be difficult to tell – something might be moved, and you think there might have been a theft,” he said.

Side affects of the stimulant meth include severe paranoia, hallucinations, rapid heart beat and “meth sores,” which is when the drug starts to come out of the body through the skin.

Tinker, who’s also a DPS officer, said paranoia gets so severe that people often become insanely violent over literally nothing.

“I know of guys who go outside and start shooting at nothing because they think the police are watching them,” he said.

Foster said the paranoia can be so bad that the makers, who are usually using, will do anything to not get caught.

“We have reports that lead us to believe they will throw anhydrous ammonia on the officers during a raid,” he said.

In Iowa, meth is usually made in small labs in people’s houses, apartments, garages or at the site where the anhydrous ammonia is stolen, Foster said. Last year, there were 98 meth labs found in Boone and Story Counties, Tinker said.

When a meth lab is found, it’s cleaned by professionals. The cleaning process is extremely expensive for the state, he said.

“Usually when there is a lab found, whether in a house or what not, the state comes in and does a meth clean up,” he said. “The clean up can cost between $5,000 and $10,000.”

Foster said the Story County Sheriff’s Office is taking a three-step approach at the meth problem that includes education, short-term enforcement and extra attention at the theft sites.

Foster said the anhydrous ammonia problem is not going away, and he hopes the involvement of the sheriff’s department will help decrease its effect. He said one of the main problems is the number of people who know how to make the drug.

“Each meth maker teaches 10 others each year,” he said.