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Illegal grows bring environmental crimes

Pollution will be a long-term issue

  • 3 min to read
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Illegal grows bring environmental crimes

Open fertilizer containers were located at a site in Mountain Ranch where an abatement warrant was served in September. Nearly 800 marijuana plants were eradicated at the site. 

 

A sense of indifference drives the egregious environmental crimes occurring at numerous illegal marijuana grows throughout the county, according to state law enforcement officials.

Many responsible for annihilating the environment do so on federal lands or on properties they do not own, said Lt. Chris Stoots of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Enforcement Division. “They just don’t care about what they are doing.”

“There is zero accountability,” said Stoots. “Nobody is connected to the (land). If it is on private land, there is an aspect of caution of concern.”

To date, local law enforcement has assisted in the eradication of 11,165 pounds of processed marijuana, 52,144 plants and nearly 7 pounds of marijuana concentrates at 51 locations throughout Calaveras County, said in an email. The busts netted 24 guns, $118,964 in seized cash, 48 arrests and two citations, he added.

A large amount of the activity came in August, when state and local authorities teamed up for a three-day eradication spree deemed Operation Terminus that tackled 23 illegal grow sites throughout the county. The environmental destruction encountered during the August raids, where human waste was thrown into rivers and streams and pesticide containers were flung into piles and trash built up into bulks, were consistent with other violations seen throughout the state, said Stoots.

At least one Calaveras site had enough pesticides seeped into a nearby waterway to cause visual damage. Stoots said a reaction triggered a green, snotty algae bloom from the excess nitrogen released from the chemicals.

It was a long-term issue, Stoots said. Rather than disappearing when the waterway ran dry in the warmer weather, the algae whittled into a white, “tissuey” crust that coated the rocks where the water ran.

The site, in Heiser Canyon near Copperopolis, was where authorities said they found one of the most heinous environmental crimes they’ve seen. It was linked to a Rastafarian Church in Yolo County that claimed marijuana was a sacrament and should have been exempt from local rules because of it.

In August, church Rev. Heidi Grossman, known previously as Lepp, said the church could have been operating against her authorization. She said she was going to look into it.

The result of her probe is unknown. She was arrested by police in Sacramento on conspiracy charges early in October, according to a video posted online by her apparent husband, Eddy Lepp.

Mismanaged pesticide containers are a common theme at many unpermitted grows, though the severity of potential contamination varies. DiBasilio said it was hard to know what types of pesticides were contaminating the environment because most were in unmarked containers.

Perhaps exceedingly appalling was the Carbofuran rodenticide located at three Calaveras locations in West Point, Burson and Valley Springs. Known as one of the most toxic substances, it was banned in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008.

Its lethality is not prejudicial. It can harm animals as well as humans. Stoots said it can cause the skin to burn just from exposure. The toxicity was apparent in the officer and canine that had to receive treatment at an unspecified time when they were exposed to the rodenticide.

Details are limited on how the Carbofuran has been used in Calaveras. Stoots said he has seen some sites where growers pour the rodenticide that looks pink and tastes like bubble gum into cut-out water bottles for animals to drink from.

Deer can get into it as the chemical, also called Furadan, is found in different types of foliage, Stoots said. Doing so threatens an entire food chain because as animals lower on the food chair are exposed, predators are then exposed.

Limited evidence of such devastation has been reported in Calaveras thus far. Of all the potential for damage with the presence of Carbofuran, DiBasilio said authorities located one deer that was shot at an illegal site in Calaveras.

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Illegal grows bring environmental crimes

Fertilizer cans lying around a different illegal site in Mountain Ranch last month. Almost 700 plants were eradicated. 

Aside from the pollution from the presence of chemical substances, illegal stream diversions have also been common at illegitimate Calaveras marijuana sites. Stoots said some streams were blocked off completely in certain areas.

So far, the diversions have had a limited effect because of the massive amount of rain that drenched the region last winter, said Calaveras County Water District spokesman Joel Metzger. He said it is hard to know the exact amount of water that diversions are taking from Mokelumne River tributaries where CCWD, the county’s largest water utility, gets its water. The district does not have gauges from where it diverts water and officials there have not had to use backup water sources this year.

If illegal diversions continue, the harm could be expansive. Not only would CCWD be affected, the Calaveras Public Utilities District (which serves Mokelumne Hill and San Andreas), and the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves customers in the East Bay, could be at risk, Metzger said.

It is not known whether environmental crimes of these magnitudes will continue moving forward. Regardless the policy direction involving legal cannabis grows, DiBasilio has said publicly it will take up to four years to get a handle on the situation from a law enforcement standpoint.

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