During a six-year span, the number of responses by North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation to clandestine labs — or locations where illegal drugs are manufactured — has risen by more than 250 percent, from 157 in 2007 to 561 in 2013, SBI data shows.
Not all of the labs, which involve toxic and hazardous chemicals, were used to manufacture methamphetamine. But Todd Duke, special agent in charge of the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation’s Special Services unit, said about 98 or 99 percent of the labs are methamphetamine related.
The process to deconstruct a lab is laborious, tedious and dangerous, due to toxic chemicals and gasses created by the manufacturing of methamphetamine. A mistake made while dealing with these labs can jeopardize workers’ safety.
Before SBI officials deconstruct a lab they must obtain a search warrant, Duke said. Anyone entering the area needs a HAZWOPER certification, proving they have been trained to work with hazardous materials.
Agents have special equipment to keep them safe. But the scene itself must be safe before anyone can enter.
“The first thing we’ll do is assess the scene and monitor the air and assess the flammable levels,” Duke said. “If it is dangerous, we air it out.”
Part of securing the scene involves mitigating hazards. “If you have a reaction taking place, we’re going to do whatever we can to stop the reaction to make sure it doesn’t blow up,” Duke said. Then, the process is similar to evaluating any other crime scene, the main difference being agents’ hazmat suits.
Agents will locate any items related to the drug or manufacturing, such as needles, written notes, finished products or smoking devices. If they’re searching a home, agents will scour the perimeter of the yard. Many times manufacturers will toss items out of windows, Duke pointed out.
After evidence is documented, what the SBI calls a hot zone is set up, normally in the yard of a residence. There, chemicals are separated based on compatibility, Duke said, and unknown items are tested. The process to deconstruct the lab usually takes several hours.
When reports are completed and chemicals have been sampled, everything is stabilized, separated by group, packed into buckets and transported to a holding facility. From there, a hazardous waste contractor will transport the items to a deconstruction facility. Chemicals can’t be stored in evidence rooms.
Duke normally sees clandestine labs inside residences. But due to an increasingly popular manufacturing technique known as the “shake and bake,” or “one-pot,” method, methamphetamine can be produced nearly anywhere because, “it’s small, portable and you don’t need a hot plate or stove to cook,” Duke said.
“Basically, since 2010, it’s increased every year as far as the manufacture method of choice,” he added. “So far (in 2014), 85 percent of our responses have been to one-pot or shake and bake.”
SIGNS OF A METH LAB
When illegal drugs are being manufactured in your neighborhood, it affects the whole community, not just those involved.
Lt. Jason Beebe, who oversees Catawba County Sheriff’s Office’s narcotics unit, gave four tips on how to identify an area where there is a methamphetamine laboratory.
» CONSTANT VISITORS: “Heavy traffic in and out of a residence and the visits are very short, (ending) within a matter of minutes,” Beebe said.
» ODOR OF BURNING EVIDENCE: “If you see a lot of burn piles and burn barrels, and if while those items are burning, if there is a strong chemical odor when they’re burning,” Beebe said, “or if (you) smell a strong chemical odor in the air that just doesn’t seem to fit the area that you live in.”
» UNUSUAL TRASH: “Used syringes, spoons with burn marks, tourniquets, straws, the cold packs that you buy at any Walgreens or CVS that’s torn open and emptied out, they use the nitro sulfate that are inside those things to react,” Beebe said. “Empty cans of camping fuel, batteries that have been cut open where the lithium strips have been pulled out of the batteries; those are all indicators of methamphetamine manufacturing.”
» THAT’S NOT PEPSI INSIDE: “A bottle, a two-liter bottle or a 20 ounce drink bottle that has some sludge in it. That’s where somebody more than likely has driven down the road and has thrown it out on the side of the road as trash,” said Beebe.
Be careful with a bottle if you see an unusual substance in it, too.
“Do not touch, don’t open it up, don’t smell it to try and figure out what it is, because if it were to react you could breathe in that chemical and it could melt your lungs,” Beebe said. “All those things are great indicators that someone is manufacturing, and you need to call law enforcement to come out there and deal with it.”