Remote Grotto Doubles As Meth Lab

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The sight of the anhydrous ammonia methamphetamine lab lodged in a cave northeast of Payson sent chills down the spines of the three Gila County Drug Task Force agents sent to investigate it.

"This is dangerous stuff," one said. "One whiff of it can do serious damage."

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In a cave near Payson, Gila County Drug Task Force agents found all the store-bought ingredients needed to make meth.

The most seasoned of the undercover agents, a 20-year veteran, said it was the first meth lab of this kind he'd seen in northern Gila County.

"It's not good that stuff is up here now," he said. "It's (anhydrous ammonia) a key ingredient in the illegal production of methamphetamines."

With the discovery of the anhydrous ammonia March 10, the task force agents immediately notified, and asked for assistance, from several other law enforcement agencies.

In less than a day, agents from the High Intensity Drug Traffic Area, the Department of Public Safety Explosive Ordinance Detail, a Department of Public Safety chemist and a hazardous materials team were on the scene.

Wearing personal protective equipment and a self-contained breathing apparatus, a specialist tested the container that held the ammonia.

According to another undercover Gila Task Force agent, the Environmental Protection Agency will take possession of the ammonia and then turn it over to a private company for disposal.

"That's federal protocol for handling it (anhydrous ammonia)," he said.

The task force has no leads on who started or operated the lab at this time, and they speculated that the lab was being hidden by the cave or used as a manufacturing facility because of its remote location.

"Making meth gives off unique odors so it's often done where people can't smell it," one of the agents said.

Anhydrous ammonia is commonly used as an agricultural fertilizer and industrial refrigerant.

It's inexpensive: $200 a ton for agricultural purposes, but can sell for as much as $300 a gallon on the black market.

Because of its expense in the underground economy, illegal drug makers often steal anhydrous ammonia from storage locations.

According to an EPA alert, "When stolen, the toxic gas can be unintentionally released, causing injuries to emergency responders, law enforcement personnel, the public and criminals themselves."

The trio of agents who discovered the cave lab breathed a sigh of relief after they handed the dangerous chemicals over to EPA. They were comforted that they had found the ammonia before children or others not knowing its danger.

"It's very toxic, a health hazardous and can kill," the agent said.

The EPA said the effects of inhaling anhydrous ammonia "range from lung irritation to severe respiratory injuries with possibly fatality.

"Anhydrous ammonia also is corrosive and can burn the skin...it has a boiling point of minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature it can cause freezing burns."

The alert also warned of the chemical's instability: "Anhydrous ammonia vapors can become an explosion hazard when in a confined space."

An example of its dangers occurred in May 1999. A man was killed when a makeshift container of anhydrous ammonia --slated for methamphetamine production -- exploded.

A firefighter, emergency medical technician and a good Samaritan who stopped to help, were also injured by the blast.

The advice from the agents to anyone who finds a makeshift meth lab is to immediately notify the task force of its whereabouts at (928) 474-0728.

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