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Last year, Sheriff Joe Guy’s department busted 161
meth labs in McMinn County in eastern Tennessee —
at an average cost to the federal government of
$3,250 per lab.

This year, he’s expecting at least as many labs as in
2010, but there’s no federal cleanup money this time

Just as it’s getting easier for users to make
methamphetamine, federal budget cuts are making it
harder for authorities to dispose of meth labs’ toxic

After losing the millions of dollars they once used to
clean up the battery acid, starting fluid, anhydrous
ammonia and other hazardous chemicals used in
meth’s manufacture, local law enforcement agencies
across the country are scrambling to find money for
lab disposal.

Until the end of February, the Drug Enforcement
Administration paid for lab cleanup through a large
grant from the Justice Department’s Community
Oriented Policing Services. The DEA provided $19.2
million to states and local agencies for the disposal
of more than 10,000 labs last year. But now, the grant
is exhausted, and the proposed federal budget
doesn’t include any funding to replenish it.

“A Huge Concern”

“It’s a huge concern for us,” Guy said.

“The meth problem is unlike anything we’ve ever
seen,” he added.

With no wiggle room in their budgets, agencies
around the country are begging legislators and
county commissioners for money for lab cleanup. But
with budget pressures at every level of government,
local law officers said they realize they may have to
fill the funding void with money from their own
departments’ budgets.

They’re just wondering how they’re going to do it.
Because the “one-pot” or “shake-and-bake” method
makes it easier – and more dangerous – for individual
abusers to make the drug themselves, the number of
labs is climbing. The 10,393 labs that DEA paid to
dispose of last year was a 38 percent increase from
the year before, and 12,500 or more are expected in

Toxic Materials Hazardous to Clean Up

According to the DEA, the average lab costs $2,000 to
$3,000 to clean up. That estimate doesn’t include the
actual decontamination of a home or outbuilding. It c
osts thousands of dollars for only the pickup and
disposal of the chemicals and tools used to make the
meth, many of which are volatile and explosive when
mixed together and must be disposed of in special
containers at designated landfills.

Typically, after a bust, local law enforcement would
contact the DEA to get a certified cleanup contractor.
Most local sheriff’s and police departments aren’t
equipped to deal with the labs’ toxic materials, so
they depended on the DEA to provide someone who
was. They also relied on the DEA to foot the bill

When officers in Tennessee and other states called
the DEA for help in late February, as they had done so
many times before, they got an unwelcome and
unexpected response.

“We were told they no longer had the funding and that
we would have to work it out the best we could,” said
Chris Isom, a sheriff’s detective in White County,
Tenn. The department had to contact a cleanup crew
on its own, and “it became an ordeal because the
company didn’t know how much they were going to
charge, they didn’t know when they’d come out. It
really jammed up the gears because we weren’t ready
for it.”

No Money in the Sheriff’s Budget

A crew eventually showed up. Now, there’s a $2,200
cleanup bill on the table and no way to pay for it.
“We’re wondering, Where is the money going to come
from?” Isom said. “Are we going to have a line item for
it? Are we going to assess it to the property owner?
Will that be possible?”

Officers in Grainger County, in northeastern
Tennessee, have also found out that going it alone
isn’t easy. The sheriff’s department called a contractor
after a recent bust, and it took almost a day for
personnel with meth expertise to get to the site and
clean it up. Under the DEA’s watch, it usually took a
matter of hours.

The cost estimate from the company was between
$2,800 and $3,000. John McMurray, a Grainger
County detective, said the department is going to
plead its case to the county commission because
there isn’t money in the sheriff’s office budget for the

Growing Number of Meth Labs

“We had 14 labs last year, and that’s what’s really
stressing me out,” McMurray said. “If it were just one
a year, we could move some money around from
uniform allowances or something, but if you have to
factor in 10 or 15, that’s when we get worried.”

To combat the growing number of labs, at least 10
states have considered legislation this year that
would make pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient in
meth and cold and allergy medications, harder to get,
either by tracking purchases so individuals can’t buy
in bulk or by making the medication prescription-
only. But the prescription-only laws have met stiff
resistance from lobbying groups who say the
legislation would be burdensome for innocent allergy
sufferers, and the measures have already failed in
several states.

An estimated 500,000 Americans regularly use meth,
an addictive stimulant that initially causes a sense of
euphoria but when abused can lead to paranoia,
aggression, hallucinations, and loss of memory and

Layoffs May Come

For now, even amid the financial concerns, law
enforcement officers say cutting back on lab busts is
not an option. “We’ve come to a determination that we
can’t quit looking for them,” McMurray said. “We don’t
want the bad guys to think that we’ll just give up on
them and we’re not going to bother with it anymore.”

But law enforcement can’t afford to pay for lab
cleanup and continue to conduct business as usual,
said Chuck Lange, executive director of the Arkansas
Sheriffs Association. Departments “might have to lay
people off,” he said. “If there’s a car accident, we may
not be able to send a deputy if there’s not an injury.
We may not be able to patrol as much. [The number
of] general theft reports may be cut. We’re not going
to be able to do our jobs at the level that we have
been, and that bothers me a lot.”

There may be help from the Environmental Protection
Agency, which has a program to reimburse local
governments for responding to environmental
hazards, meth labs included. But they must meet
certain eligibility requirements, and funding is

Meth’s Burden on States, Counties

For the most part, agencies are looking inward to
their county commissions and states for help. The
Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics is providing $600,000
to $800,000 for cleanup this year, but with the
growing number of labs, even that may not be

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