By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tenn (Reuters) - Tennessee officials began burning marijuana on Thursday seized from a growing operation so large and elaborate it included underground tunnels and on-site barracks for the farmers.
The seizure was the largest ever in a state that consistently ranks among the top three pot-producing states.
"We've got 50 yards of dope dumped out by the sheriff's department and with 400 gallons of diesel on it, we've got it burning," said Obion County Sheriff Jerry Vastbinder, who followed a tip into the rugged terrain of west Tennessee and discovered the operation.
The tip led to 362,000 pot plants plus 200 pounds of processed marijuana, according to T.J. Jordan, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation special agent who oversees the Governor's Task Force on Marijuana Eradication. No arrests have been made.
Jordan said the seizure surpassed the total of 330,000 plants, with an approximate street value of $300 million, eradicated by the task force statewide in 2010.
"This was not only the largest seizure, but the most sophisticated, elaborate outdoor operation we have ever seen," Jordan said.
About 75 personnel from different law enforcement agencies worked to uproot the 15 to 20 acres. The plants were hauled in two dump trucks to a field by the sheriff's office to be burned.
"It was scattered through the hillsides from one end of the area through another," Vastbinder said. He said the operation stretched about two miles.
"They had dug tunnels through some of the hills and caves," he said. "They had generators that were powering watering systems, pulling water from nearby creeks."
The generators were tucked into tunnels to muffle their sound, he said. There were also hilltop water reservoirs constructed of adobe, with gravity flow lines to water the crops.
The farmers apparently lived on the premises, sleeping on bunks made of woven bamboo cane under mosquito netting, Vastbinder said. The barracks included a kitchen and a gravity-fed shower.
Jordan wouldn't comment on details of the investigation or suspects, but said taking out a big-money operation like this was a big victory "for the good guys."
(Writing and reporting by Tim Ghianni; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Cynthia Johnston)