Illegal pot farms in Northern California's Emerald Triangle facing raids

HUMBOLDT, Calif. (KGO) -- Three Northern California counties have been ground zero for the state's pot production for decades. Illegal grows are hidden on federal lands and often run by Mexican drug cartels. Now that the state is regulating cannabis they're on notice to clean-up their act, or shut down.

Humboldt County is home to ancient redwood forests, environmentally sensitive creeks and streams, and pot. The county sheriff showed us these photos from a recent raid where you can see the dirty side of the weed industry. Investigators found trash, hazardous waste and even raw sewage all next to an endangered salmon spawning area.

"There's a long history of illegal cultivation in the North Coast," said California State Department of Fish and Wildlife Chief David Bess.

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Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties make up the largest cannabis growing region in the U.S. Pot has been grown there since the 1960s.

"Since legalization has come in, we see many of the folks who want to comply, getting on board with the legal framework and going through the proper licensing. There are a whole bunch of folks who are not," said Bess.

That is where the focus has shifted. While state regulators are ensuring licensed farms are following the state rules, Fish and Wildlife is going after those who aren't. Last month they arrested three men at four allegedly illegal sites and authorities say they discovered $3 million in hidden cash. The men have been released pending charges.

RELATED: Humboldt marijuana growers tighten belts for legalization

In nearby Trinity County, U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott recently showed what was left behind after a raid on National Forest land.

"It makes me angry because this is a national asset," he said. "It's a national treasure and it's being despoiled by criminals."

One grow had 4,000 plants before it was eradicated in 2017. But a year later, there are still mounds of garbage, hoses and toxic pesticides. Including traces of carbofuran, used to kill insects.

"Carbofuran is lethal as a quarter teaspoon. It can kill a 600-pound African lion," said Dr. Mahmoud Gabriel with the Integral Resource Center.

RELATED: Labs warn of dangerous, contaminated pot at dispensaries

Scott says many of these illegal grows hidden on federal lands are run by Mexican drug cartels.

They often tap into nearby streams and creeks to water their plants.

Scott said, "As all of us in California know there is already not enough water to go around, massive amounts of it are being diverted to this illegal criminal enterprise to grow marijuana."

The people doing the illegal farming usually have little regard for the environment which means hazardous waste can trickle into the nearby streams and creeks.

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Environmentalists say the toxins and sediment that end up in the water can kill native animals and endangered salmon.

Scott Greacen, with the Friends of the Eel River, said, "Once it is there - it takes a really long time to flush out so it is more of a chronic problem, like cancer, and it is much harder to fix and much more expensive to fix."

Last month, $2.5 million in federal funding was earmarked to target illegal cannabis growing operations in Northern California.

"We're going to focus on the ones that are causing the most significant environmental damage first - but ultimately knowing that our mission is to come after everybody who is not in legal framework," said Bess.

But environmentalists are now suing in Humboldt County. The Friends of the Eel River filed a suit claiming the county's recently adopted pot rules, "fail to adequately protect native fish and waters from the impacts of cannabis cultivation."

Click here for full coverage on cannabis in California.

Written and Produced by Ken Miguel.
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