An incident involving three barrels of the sodium cyanide that fell off the back of a truck somewhere between Devils Lake and Cavalier, N.D., has attracted the attention of the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The Ramsey County Sheriff's Office is searching for one of the barrels containing the extremely dangerous chemical. The remaining barrels were recovered and secured by the Devils Lake Fire Department. Terrorism has been ruled out in the incident.
"This is probably one of the most far-reaching incidents that has ever happened in North Dakota agriculture," said Andrew Thostenson, North Dakota State University pesticide program specialist. "This will have repercussions and ramifications for years to come. This is a homeland security issue, and the people in homeland security and the FBI are not amused, and they are participating in this whole exercise."
Sodium cyanide is extremely dangerous, and it's important that anyone who finds the barrel contact the sheriff's department or the North Dakota Department of Agriculture immediately.
Sept. 30, the Ramsey County Sher iff's office recovered two 30-gallon kegs of sodium cyanide that were found by two separate farmers along state Highway 1 north of Lakota, N.D. Because of the investigation, the sheriff's office is not releasing any detailed information, such as how the barrels fell from the truck.
The chemical was being brought into the state by beekeepers who have been using it as a heavy duty disinfectant to sterilize equipment and to kill the bees at the end of the season, Thostenson said.
The authorities aren't releasing the name or names of the beekeepers involved in the incident because of an ongoing investigation,
It takes only 500 parts per million to kill a person in about five minutes when it's inhaled, said Thostenson, who trains and certifies people to use pesticides correctly. Cyanide disrupts and destroys the cell membranes in the body and deprives the cells of oxygen.
"You suffocate in your own body fluids, and you also are deprived of oxygen, so it's like being drowned and having a pillow put over your head. It's not pretty," he said.
The chemical reacts with water to create lethal hydrogen cyanide gas, which was used by the Nazis in World War II in gas chambers.
Why it's here
Sodium cyanide is registered for use in the commercial chrome plating business and in mining for extracting gold and silver from ore.
It isn't illegal to possess the compound, but it also isn't registered as a pesticide anywhere in the United States, so its appearance in North Dakota should throw up red flags, Thostenson said.
"The fact that this stuff is out there and in a very unregulated and uncontrolled state is frightening to everybody," Thostenson said.
What also has stunned many of the individuals involved in the investigation is that sodium cyanide is exempt from the U.S. Department of Transportation's placard rules. That means that vehicles carrying the chemical do not have to display a hazardous material warning sign, said Jeff Olson, a program manager at the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, which oversees registered pesticide use in the state.
Also, during the course of its investigation, the ag department discovered the use of sodium cyanide as a pesticide is larger than they had anticipated.
"We had suspicion that there was a little bit being used, but from our investigation, so far, we are finding that it's more widespread than we realized, and it has caught us by surprise," Olson said. "We found out there were 18 kegs shipped into Minot, N.D., and distributed throughout the state."
The ag department has located 17 of the 18 kegs that were manufactured by national chemical maker DuPont.
Although there probably won't be any criminal charges against the beekeepers, the ag department could levy fines of up to $6,000, he said.
"Once we have concluded our investigation, we'll determine what kind of penalties will be assessed to all involved," Olson said.
The Devils Lake Fire Department had just gone through a disaster drill the day before they received a call that a barrel of sodium cyanide had been found in the area.
"You get a lump in your stomach when you're reacting to something that's very hazardous," said Devils Lake Fire Chief Jim Moe.
Because the barrels were in good shape and had been moved already by two different individuals who were not harmed, the fire department decided they could handle the situation.
"We're not qualified as a hazardous materials team; we're a decontamination team," Moe said. "Should this have been a more compromising situation, we would have maintained a safe distance and called in the hazardous materials team."
Terrorism did cross the minds of the firefighters, especially after the report of a second barrel.
"You have to react to it, and you have to consider it before you can rule it out," Moe said. But after several phone calls, the fire department concluded terrorism was not involved.
Moe is concerned, however, about people who pick up suspicious objects and transport them.
"If people come upon something that's suspicious in origin, don't pick it up yourself. Call the authorities," he said.