Cost of meth lab cleanup falls on local agencies

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 24, 2011

By Shelley Smith
SALISBURY — If authorities in Rowan County were to discover a methamphetamine lab today, the bill for the cleanup — at least $3,500 —would fall into the hands of the county.
In February, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration ended its funding for lab cleanup, which had been provided for more than 10 years, sending the cost to state governments. In North Carolina, the State Bureau of Investigations began funding the clean-ups.
But as of May 5, the SBI had spent more than $164,000 on cleanups since the Feb. 25 cut-off date, and requested State Contingency and Emergency Funds through the Office of State Budget and Management, but the request was not approved. So, the SBI had to turn the costs over to local and state agencies May 10.
Though the county does not have the money in the remaining year’s budget, nor next year’s budget, Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten said that County Manager Gary Page told him that the county would find the funding.
“He said, ‘Do your job. Do what you need to do,’ ” Auten said. “I still say that meth lab discoveries and arresting people for these meth labs is the greatest service that our drug unit can provide, and prosecuting those individuals. And it’s due to the health risks, environmental issues and all the negative things associated with a methamphetamine lab.”
Page said cleaning up meth labs has to be addressed.
“As we go through the rest of this year and maybe after our budget work session next year, we’ll just deal with them as we go along,” he said, and the funding will have to be taken out of leftover funding for the sheriff’s office, the county’s fund balance or contingency funds.
This year, the county has found four methamphetamine labs — the total number of labs found in 2010.
Hopefully the county will not have to scramble to find the funds, Auten said, and he has been told that cleanup funding will be back in place within the next 60 days. But he’s not holding his breath.
“We haven’t seen anything on paper telling us that this is what we’re going to do,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s going to be coordinated by the SBI through the DEA.
“We’re in limbo.”
Cleanup and chemistry
The cleanup cost is far less than the toll that methamphetamine labs have on the environment, and the health effects of the manufacturers and users.
Jim Beard, a chemistry professor at Catawba College, said that one methamphetamine lab improperly disposed of, or even chemicals from one being dumped outdoors would probably not be significant, but “it’s the cumulative effects of these things.”
“These people are into making the product, so what happens to the solvents they use is not high on their priority list,” Beard said. “A lot of organic toxins are in and of themselves toxic. Inhaling all of these things are bad for your health. But there are all kinds of various health effects of inhaling these solvents.”
Beard said he’s never actually looked at the chemistry of making methamphetamine, but he knows the dangers to the health of one who cooks it or uses it.
Here are a few ingredients commonly used to make methamphetamine:
• Ether, ethanol, paint thinner, acetone, chloroform, drain cleaner, battery acid, cold tablets, Freon and gasoline.
One-pot labs are becoming the most popular method of cooking methamphetamine, and they are the only style of lab the sheriff’s office has found this year. One-pots are usually cooked in a two-liter or three-liter bottle, and they are dangerous as the bottle builds up pressure and could explode.
“We’re 100 percent one-pot now,” Moose said.
Years ago, when Moose and Auten worked drugs together, they mostly ran across a method known as a Nazi lab, because it is similar to those made by the Nazis during World War Two. The method uses anhydrous ammonia in place an acid, releasing a poisonous gas as its prepared.
Auten and Moose say safety precautions for investigators have changed since Rowan County found its first lab in 2000.
“Pretty much before, you just went in,” Auten said.
“The first one we were in was a rich solvent environment,” Moose said, which may have something to do with Auten’s cough that won’t go away.
“I’ve got one that just never goes away,” Auten said. “But we don’t know. It’s just one of those things.”
Moose said that in the ’90s, many officers investigating methamphetamine labs died from various health complications.
Now, officers must wear a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), Tyvex suits and protective booties and gloves.
If deputies come across an a lab that’s “actively cooking,” Moose said, a special team is called in from the SBI.
A chemist is always called in, along with other SBI investigators, and then the hazardous-materials team comes from Spartanburg, S.C. The average time the sheriff’s office spends on the entire process of investigating and dismantling a meth lab is between 18 and 24 hours.
Neighbors are always notified, and the SBI will post documents on the home, vehicle, or anywhere the lab is found, proclaiming it a hazardous environment. The property will be roped off with crime scene tape.
“Before they can inhabit the structure again, or even a car, (the owner) has to have it assessed through the health department and deemed safe,” Moose said.
Auten and Moose said Rowan’s first methamphetamine lab bust was in 2000, but the drug has been around since the 1960s and its use is on the rise.
“We’re getting a lot more information than we used to,” Moose said. “I think it’s on the rise again, primarily because the one-pot method is easier now.
“But gathering chemicals is harder because the law is harder for them to get their primary ingredient. They must sign and write down their ID number. Now we can track it back to the pseudoephedrines that were bought, and arrest more.”
Warning signs
• Nearly every meth maker is also a user.
• All meth labs discovered by the sheriff’s office have been operated by a white male.
• Warning signs someone may be cooking methamphetamine are: paranoid behavior; working on a car when there’s nothing wrong with it or repeating manual tasks, such as shoveling gravel; activity in the middle of the night; chemical smells coming from the house or car; poor hygiene; short-term traffic at a house; problems with teeth.
• One-pot method is the easiest and most popular way to cook methamphetamine.
• Rowan County found four meth labs in 2010, the same number of labs found in the county so far this year.
Problem returns
According to data from the N.C. SBI, the state saw a huge decline in methamphetamine labs in 2006, 2007 and 2008, but the past three years have seen an increase:
• 2004: 322
• 2005: 328
• 2006: 197
• 2007: 157
• 2008: 195
• 2009: 206
• 2010: 235
• 2011: 159 (as of May 16)
McDowell County has had the most labs since 2001 — 160 — and three so far this year.
Harnett county has seen a total of eight labs this year, and 121 since 2001.
 Watauga County has already seen 12 labs this year, and Wayne County has  13.
Burke County has seen the most labs this year, 18, the highest number of labs in the past 10 years for the county.
Other interesting statistics from the Drug Enforcement Administration and N.C. SBI:
• Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri continue to lead the nation in methamphetamine labs; Tennessee had 1,199 in 2010, Kentucky, 1,049, and Missouri, 1,917.
• Hawaii, Connecticut, New Jersey and Rhode Island had no labs in 2010.
• Clay County was meth-lab free for the past 10 years, but two have been found so far this year.
• Chowan, Edgecombe, Bertie, Camden, Moore, Orange Perquimans, Scotland, Warren and Tyrell counties haven’t seen a lab in the past 10 years.