By Ray Morris.

GREENVILLE, MS (AP)--Farmers and authorities in the Delta are noticing, at an alarming pace, the numbers of thefts occurring in rural areas in the Delta of a chemical called anhydrous ammonia.

The chemical is used by makers of a drug called crystal methamphetamine, a stimulant that is wreaking havoc in some homes and families all over the state.

Anhydrous ammonia is a chemical used by farmers to fertilize their crops, since the chemical is primarily made up of nitrogen. Nitrogen-rich soil is excellent for crops of all kinds.

Retired farmer Farris Proctor, who lives near Lake Jackson, said recently he never heard of anyone stealing anhydrous when he was a farmer.

"I don't think they were making that stuff (crystal methamphetamine) back then," said Proctor, who retired six years ago. "Anhydrous ammonia is the cheapest type of nitrogen there is, since it is around 82% nitrogen."

Farris said the chemical is also good for killing nematodes, microscopic worms that eat at the roots of crops.

Humphreys County Sheriff Wayne Holloway said the thefts began to occur in his county about 1999, about the same time Arkansas passed a law preventing farmers from storing anhydrous ammonia on their property when not in use.

"Folks from Arkansas began coming over here to steal the ammonia," Holloway said. "The state is going to have to start appropriating money to help stop this."

Capt. David Sessums with the Washington County Sheriff's Department agrees with Holloway, saying manpower is a problem when trying to cover the 800 square-miles in Washington County.

"It's really hard to cover 800 square-miles when you only have four deputies on patrol at night," Sessums said. "We try to watch all the fixed tanks in the county."

Over the last few months, the Washington County Sheriff's Department has been successful in nabbing would-be anhydrous ammonia thieves. However, Sessums said it's hard to keep up with everyone.

"You can supposedly go on the Internet and find the locations of tanks of anhydrous ammonia in Washington County," Sessums said.

Stan Bagley, director of the Central Delta Drug Task Force, said the use of anhydrous ammonia is central to the "Nazi" method of creating crystal methamphetamine, the most popular of two methods of creating the drug.

"(Adolph) Hitler had his scientist create the drug using anhydrous ammonia during World War II to keep the soldiers fighting for three...four days at a time," Bagley said. "This is where the (Nazi) name came from."

Bagley said the other method is the "red phosphorus" method, which uses highly volatile red phosphorus as the main "cooking" ingredient. This method is used, Bagley said, primarily on the West Coast, where anhydrous ammonia is not available as much as it is here.

If Mississippi were to pass the same laws Arkansas has to regulate the storage of anhydrous ammonia, Bagley said today's crystal meth cooks are still cunning enough to create their own anhydrous ammonia.

"They are going to start finding other ways," Bagley said. "Some have gone so far as to soak ammonia nitrate (an explosive) in some chemical to get the ammonia out of it."

Sessums and Bagley both said thieves use various containers to steal the anhydrous ammonia and transport it, many of which are very dangerous.

"Some people modify propane tanks to carry the stuff," Sessums said. "This is very dangerous because if the anhydrous ammonia heats up, it expands, creating pressure. A lot of the tanks aren't made to withstand that type pressure and could explode."

Other popular methods of transporting anhydrous ammonia include plastic buckets and Igloo coolers.

Sessums said anhydrous ammonia is a hazardous chemical that can burn the exterior skin and burn the lungs if inhaled. He said he has seen several people at the Mississippi Firefighters Memorial Burn Center who have inhaled the fumes and burned the lining of their lungs.

Greenville Police Chief Lee Adams said he has only had a few incidents within the city limits that involve finding containers of anhydrous ammonia, but has training on-tap to make his officers aware of the problem.

"We have some roll call training on the identification of meth," Adams said.

The crime of stealing anhydrous ammonia is a felony punishable by up to five years in the state penitentiary.

"Everybody is a victim of the dadburned stuff," Sessums said. "We'll do whatever it takes to stop it."

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