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Toxic industry: Officials decry harmful fallout from illegal pot operations

Posted: July 21, 2012 1:30 a.m.
Updated: July 21, 2012 1:30 a.m.

Patrick Foy, warden with the Department of Fish and Game, kneels next to bags of illegal Mexican pesticide, which were seized during a raid on an illegal marijuana-growing operation.

Illegal pot growers are killing animals and vegetation in forested areas surrounding the Santa Clarita Valley, law enforcement, forestry and university researchers say.

On July 13, two Orange County men were arrested and charged with unlawfully planting and cultivating marijuana after a special squad of narcotics agents broke up their operation in Whitney Canyon in the Angeles National Forest.

More than 6,000 marijuana plants were seized in the raid; initial estimates put the value of the crop at $10.2 million.

Asked if other such illegal farms were believed operating in the national forest around the Santa Clarita Valley, Lt. Mike Thatcher, who heads the Marijuana Enforcement Team for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, answered, “Absolutely.”

“That’s our main area,” Thatcher said. “We’re the only marijuana enforcement team in the state.”

Such pot-growing operations not only break the law, the damage they cause to the environment can be substantial.

On the same day Thatcher’s team broke up the Whitney Canyon operation, state Department of Fish and Game officials and researchers at the University of California, Davis released a report detailing the destruction caused by illegal pot growers.

Growers are doing just about anything — regardless of its impact on the environment — to grow and protect their lucrative cash crops, said Fish and Game Warden Patrick Foy.

“These are not medical marijuana growers,” Foy he said. “These operations are in the deep woods and way off the beaten path.”

In disrupting operations in the forests throughout the state, including those surrounding the Santa Clarita Valley, law enforcement officials have confiscated not only tens of thousands of illegal plants but also hundreds of pounds of deadly illegal Mexican-made pesticides.

The pesticides are used to kill rats and other rodents that threaten the crops, Foy said.

“They use it to keep the rats from nibbling on the irrigation line,” Foy said.

“Since they have more than 1,000 plants per site, they need water from nearby creeks,” Foy said. “And, there are lots of problems associated with creek pollution.”

Significant amounts of potent pesticides that drain into creeks from illegal pot crops are finding their way downstream and into the drinking water system, he said.

“These guys will dam up creeks to make sure there’s enough water for their crops,” he said.

Marijuana farms hidden in the national forest can pose a danger to hikers because those who grow the illegal crop are usually well armed and don’t welcome intruders, Foy said.

Hikers are advised to keep a sharp eye for illegal pot-growing operations.

“We had a sixth officer-involved shooting a week and a half ago,” Foy said during an interview last week.

A Department of Fish and Game officer exchanged gunfire with growers when he stumbled on an illegal growing operation, he said.

The number of illegal pot-growers appears to be growing faster than the crops, federal officers and university researchers say.

Special agents with the U.S. Forest Service recently seized 22,371 illegal marijuana plants from six illegal growing areas in Southern California, said spokesman John C. Heil III.

“The largest operation we found had 10,724 plants seized in the San Gabriel Canyon,” Heil said.

In addition to also seizing illegal pesticides, forest officials removed 13,820 pounds of trash left in the woods near the growing operations, he said.



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