Who will pay to clean up meth labs?

Posted: 16th May 2011 by Doc in Uncategorized
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Police looking to clean up clandestine methamphetamine labs once turned to the federal government for funding.

Today, things are more complicated.

Federal money once available to dispose of potentially deadly chemicals at meth labs has dissipated, leaving cash-starved state and local police to worry about how to finance such cleanups in the future. The shortfall comes at the worst possible time as North Carolina girds for what many expect to be a record-breaking number of meth seizures in 2011.

Since federal funding disappeared in February, the State Bureau of Investigation has footed the bill to trash those chemicals meth cooks leave behind in North Carolina. But the state notified county and city law enforcement agencies last week that the SBI could no longer pay the tab.

The advisory means the onus now falls on strapped local governments to hire contractors trained in handling and properly disposing of volatile solvents and acids that pose a risk to human health and the environment.

The funding shortage sparked an uproar among law enforcement agencies in North Carolina and galvanized police officials to lobby Congress for additional money.

“Our concern is that if Congress and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration don’t step up and fund meth lab cleanups as they have for the last 10 years, our ability to protect young children and the public at large will be negatively impacted,” SBI Director Greg McLeod said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

He added that the state is on pace to find a record 400 labs this year.

Congress has generally appropriated $10 million each year for meth cleanups. David Levey, a spokesman for the DEA, which administers the funding, said that same amount was allotted for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, but it ran out in February. “There simply wasn’t enough money,” he said.

The fact that the funding quickly evaporated underscores the recent surge in meth abuse. And law enforcement officials were hoping Congress would allot additional money when it passed its contentious spending plan last month to keep the government running through September. That didn’t happen, though.

Dozens of sheriffs with state legislators Wednesday in Raleigh to seek a resolution to the problem. But lawmakers told the group the state had no money for meth cleanups, according to two sheriffs present at the meeting.

“We’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Anson County Sheriff Tommy Allen Jr. His office is worried it will be forced to mark meth labs as hazardous waste sites and then leave them contaminated, simply because there is no money to pay for a proper and safe cleanup.

“I don’t think they understand the seriousness of the problem,” he said, referring to Congressional lawmakers. “This is a real problem.”

Rise in meth labs
Meth, a stimulant that has limited medical uses, can be manufactured illegally using products available at the grocery store. It can be swallowed, snorted, injected or smoked, and has numerous health consequences.

Abuse of the drug has risen precipitously. Some experts say the surge is cyclical, reflecting new laws aimed at addressing the issue and the time it takes for meth cooks to adapt to them.

Authorities say large-scale meth production in homes has given way to a single-container method called “shake and bake,” a process that requires less ingredients and can be done in the car.

In 2007, the SBI responded to 157 clandestine labs, the lowest figure since the state saw a spike in 2005, when it responded to 328.

So far in 2011, agents were dispatched to 146 labs, representing the highest four-month total in six years. The state is on track this year to meet or exceed the number of labs uncovered during the high mark in 2005.

Much of those cooking operations have been in the western half of the state. Statistics show that Southeastern North Carolina is much more immune from the scourge. New Hanover County, for instance, has averaged about one lab a year since 2003, much lower than, say, Rutherford County, which averaged about 17 each of the last eight years, according to SBI statistics.

“We’ve been blessed that it hasn’t gotten to the coastal communities,” said Capt. D.A. Ciamillo, commander of the New Hanover County Vice and Narcotics Unit.

Many officials believe New Hanover County bucked the trend because of its density. Cooking meth usually requires privacy because of its distinctive smell, among other things.

Even so, meth cooks find ways. A popular method is cooking in the back of a van while its moving. The smell never stays in one place long enough to attract attention. Wilmington police investigators shut down such a mobile meth lab in a patch of woods off Dapple Court last month. It cost $4,682.50 to remove hazardous chemicals from that one cooking operation, according to Todd Duke, assistant special agent in charge of the SBI’s clandestine laboratory response unit.

This year alone, authorities have rescued 36 children from meth labs across the state, McLeod said. One of those occurred in Hoke County, when a 4-month-old boy was pulled from a lab with second- and third-degree burns.

Joseph Mazzuca, an operations manager at the Meth Lab Cleanup Company, a business that specializes in decontaminating structures that formerly housed meth labs and has offices nationwide, said the surge is likely the result of enforcement efforts along the border with Mexico. The crackdown stemmed the foreign supply of meth but encouraged addicts to set up shop at home, he said.

Searching for money
For decades, when police found a meth lab, the federal government funded what was essentially hazardous waste removal. The process often involves people in hazmat suits and masks carefully removing toxic substances that can explode or leach into the water and soil. Removing each site often costs several thousand dollars.

The program is funded through U.S. Department of Justice’s COPS program, which took a financial hit under the current federal spending plan. And meth lab disposal has not even been included in the president’s recommended 2012 budget.

When the federal money stream ran dry in February, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper and the SBI stepped in to fill the vacuum, promising to fund cleanups temporarily until a permanent solution could be found or the federal government reinserted dollars. By April 27, the state spent $133,000 on such waste removal.

The SBI reached out to the governor for emergency funding to help cover costs for another 30 days once its resources grew exhausted. But its request was denied, with the money now earmarked to aid tornado victims from the recent storms that ravaged parts of the state.

The federal shortfall represents a major concern for places like McDowell County. It has a small sheriff’s office of about 44 sworn officers but averaged the highest number of meth site responses since 2001. Even though the problem tapered off during the past few years, officials there have worries.

“For the smaller counties, it’s going to be a huge financial burden,” said Capt. Shannon Smith of the McDowell County Sheriff’s Office. “If we get one, we’re going to have to pay for it.”

The lapse in funding for lab disposal exposed divisions among federal lawmakers.

Critics of how the cleanup money is funneled through the Justice Department contend the COPS program creates bureaucratic red tape that raises costs and is susceptible to waste and abuse.

Others, like Rep. Mike McIntyre, disagree. Calling it a “huge success” for the state, the Democratic Congressman from Southeastern North Carolina says he wanted to add funding to the Department of Justice COPS program, offsetting the increase with reductions in other areas.

“It is important that meth lab clean-up funding be continued, and the COPS program is an appropriate place for that effort to continue,” McIntyre said in a written response to questions.

The National Sheriff’s Association plans on approaching this issue by making law enforcement officials available to discuss meth-related issues with Congress, said Fred Wilson, the organization’s director of operations. The association is calling for Congress to fund two or three times the $10 million it traditionally allocated toward the cleanup program.

“The program has escalated by leaps and bounds,” Wilson said. “This is a huge problem.”


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