Pot grows endanger nature, risk public health | TheUnion.com

Pot grows endanger nature, risk public health

Matthew Renda
Staff Writer

The proliferation of marijuana grows in Nevada County and the rest of California harms the environment — and in extreme cases, presents a significant health and safety risk to the general public, according to public officials and scientists.

"Our environment is under siege," said Jerry Karnow, president of California's Fish and Game Warden's Association. "Cultivation of marijuana has a direct negative impact upon fish and wildlife, natural landscapes and water quality."

Karnow, who inspects public lands around Nevada County, said he has personally witnessed countless instances where pot growers have illegally diverted streams or built dams to provide water to their plants.

"The degradation of water corridors has a noticeably detrimental impact on fisheries," he said. "It's over the top. It's causing dewatering of certain areas."

Even worse, Karnow said, growers will leave dangerous pesticides and fertilizers near streams and creeks, and in some cases will drain such chemicals into a watershed that provides drinking water to the general public.

"Even if the material is not placed in the water, it's a violation (of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife code)," Karnow said. "The most hazardous violation is the water pollution. There are places I won't go to fish."

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Karnow said the biggest and most egregious violations are perpetrated by Mexican cartels who clandestinely establish illegal grows in remote sections of public lands, including the Tahoe National Forest.

"They have no regard for the environment," he said.

However, the degrading environmental practices are not exclusive to illegal grows.

Karnow said that many of the cultivation operations permitted under the 1996 California Proposition 215, which allows the cultivation and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, are also hurting the environment.

"A lot of the growers portray themselves as environmentally savvy, but the greed just takes over," he said.

The same water quality issues apparent in illegal grows are found in legal operations throughout Nevada County, although typically on a smaller scale, Karnow said.

Animals present another problem, as deer have a deep affinity for marijuana plants and are often shot and sometimes left to rot, he said.

Karnow said he sees diversion of waterways, actual water pollution and poaching on a routine basis, but credits Nevada County District Attorney Cliff Newell for his willingness to prosecute environmental infractions.

"Cliff gets it," Karnow said. "Our department has confidence in that."

Newell said the public is entitled to a pristine environment and violations of DFW code are not to be taken lightly.

"They don't come to this office with a lot of frequency," he said. "But when they do come up, we take it very seriously."

Endangered species harmed by pot industry

Marijuana growers employing rat poison to kill animals perceived as pests and to maximize yield are further endangering a declining species, scientists said in a recently published paper.

A recent study spearheaded by University of California, Davis scientist Mourad W. Gabriel concluded the improper use of various industrial grade rodenticides is threatening a potentially endangered species — the fisher.

The fisher is a medium-sized carnivorous mammal classified in the weasel family.

Once pervasive in California forests, the animal is a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Gabriel and his team deduced that illegal marijuana grows are a likely source of the poison, because the fishers in this study were radio-tracked and were observed to avoid the rural, urban or agricultural areas where rodenticides are often used legally.

"In marijuana cultivation sites, regulations regarding proper use of pesticides are completely ignored and multiple compounds are used to target any and all threats to the crop, including compounds illegal in the U.S.," said Dr. Kathryn Purcell, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and coauthor of the study.

Fishers are not the only animal threatened by the increased usage of pesticides, as in many cases officers approaching grow sites observe wildlife exposed to what officers refer to as "wildlife bombs," due to a potential for mass wildlife killing, according to an April 11 paper published in The Wildlife Society News.

Gabriel recounted an incident where law enforcement officers came upon a mother black bear and her cubs suffering seizures as they slowly succumbed to the effects of pesticides associated with grow operations.

Raccoons, gray foxes and other carnivores are also targeted and often killed by marijuana cultivators, Gabriel writes.

Cutting large swathes of national forest to allow sunlight to filter through the canopy is an increasing problem for the state's public land managers, the paper further asserted.

In 2012, several acres of hardwood-conifer and alder forest were removed from a section of the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in Northern California to pave the way for 26,600 marijuana plants, Gabriel writes.

The Mediterranean climate that abets productive growth; the cover provided by the relative remoteness of many portions of California's public lands and relatively permissive laws make the Golden State an ideal location for marijuana cultivation, Karnow said.

California is widely considered to be the leading producer of marijuana in the United States.

Safety of inspectors

State legislators Dan Logue and Jim Nielsen issued a joint press release earlier this month expressing concerns about the safety of environmental health inspectors who might encounter armed pot growers.

Nielsen, who currently represents Nevada County in the California Assembly, and Logue, who used to, met with representatives from the state water board to discuss safety issues relating to inspectors.

"It is critical that we all work together to help ensure the safety of water officials as they access and inspect marijuana growing operations for possible illegal use of fertilizers, pesticides and other harmful chemicals," Nielsen said.

UC Davis scientists also bemoaned the danger of conducting studies in remote areas of public lands.

"The camps and plantations are often guarded by armed drug traffickers, so concern for the safety of field crews, students, and biologists working on these lands is ever pressing," Gabriel and his coauthors wrote. "Due to heightened safety concerns and emerging patterns like these over the past several years, wildlife crews now are often composed of two individuals, whereas before, biologists worked independently in the field."

Gabriel said increased costs to research entities could decrease the breadth and depth and quantity of research projects that will occur in California.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email mrenda@theunion.com or 530-477-4239.

Indoor grows

While outdoor marijuana cultivation operations present a slew of environmental problems to water quality, forest habitat and wildlife, indoor grows present a unique set of environmental challenges, as well.

A 2011 study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researcher Evan Mills estimates that indoor cannabis operations account for 1 percent of the United States’ total carbon footprint.

“The emergent industry of indoor Cannabis production results in prodigious energy use, costs and greenhouse-gas pollution,” Mills writes in the study.

In California, indoor cultivation is responsible for about 3 percent of all electricity use and 9 percent of household use.

From a personal consumer standpoint, Mills said one single marijuana cigarette represents two pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions, equivalent to running a 100-watt light bulb for 25 hours.

Every 4-by-4-foot production module doubles the electricity use of an average U.S. home. The added usage is equivalent to running 30 refrigerators.

For off-grid production, which flourishes in remote sections of Nevada County, 70 gallons of fuel are required to produce a single marijuana plant.

Mills said his study is not meant to pass judgement on the merits of cannabis cultivation or medical marijuana but to illuminate an understudied aspect of energy demand in the nation and the state.

Mills said the numbers pertain to all cannabis production and not simply legal medical marijuana grows.

In comparison to production of pharmaceuticals, marijuana vastly outstrips its competitors as the U.S. pharmaceutical sector typically uses $1 billion per year of energy, while marijuana uses about $5 billion.

The energy used to produce a single marijuana cigarette would produce about 18 pints of beer.

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