“If we were to find a gun laying out on a playground, we would render it safe and inoperable, collect all facts and evidence and investigate the crime to bring those involved to justice,” said Farmer, an agent with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. “With meth labs, that requires some specially-trained law enforcement that are going to have to go through certain procedures with certain equipment.”
Those procedures and that equipment are costly, and law enforcement is struggling to keep up.
Between 2000 and 2010, the federal government provided funding to state and local agencies for cleaning a house where meth was manufactured, Farmer said. He said Tennessee would receive between $2-5 million of funding each year.
“Those dollars were exhausted,” Farmer said Monday. “We stretched existing federal dollars by cutting back on services. The state has kicked in $5 million since 2010. The Drug Enforcement Administration has kicked in. We hoped that budget woes would pass, but right now it doesn’t look good.”
Farmer said without consistent, reoccurring funding, the TBI will have to make major cuts in its methamphetamine program, if not ending the program entirely, on Dec. 31.
“It’s like a three-legged stool,” Farmer said. “It’s very solid until one of the legs break, then it falls down. That’s what we’re facing right now.”
Farmer said cleaning up meth labs involves cooperation at the federal, local and state levels. Ideally, the federal government would provide funding for equipment and supplies to clear the lab, the state provides equipment and training, and local agencies quarantine the house, remove products used in the manufacture of meth and arrest those responsible for its manufacture.
“If the state tried to man every lab, there’s no way we could do it in an efficient way,” Farmer said.
Farmer said the TBI has 15 response trucks around the state specifically for loading and transporting waste from meth labs. He said a single TBI truck may be used by as many as 26 local law enforcement agencies in one day.
“That way they’re sharing equipment and not having to buy their own,” Farmer said. “We also provide training to the local agencies. It doesn’t matter if their in a small town like Mountain City or a metro area like Memphis. They’re all trained and equipped the same way.”
Tennessee implemented the Authorized Central Storage Container Program on July 1, 2011, Farmer said. The program trains law enforcement officers to safely clean up a meth lab, remove and transport the waste to one of 11 locations across the state. The state will hold the lab for no longer than a month before contacting the DEA and surrendering the content of several labs to them at the same time, Farmer said.
He said the state previously had to notify the DEA after each individual lab was emptied, but since the TBI has been able to dispose of waste themselves, they are able to save money by making fewer trips to meet the DEA.
“Prior to 2010, the waste disposal bill for the state of Tennessee was almost $4.6 million,” Farmer said. “That’s just to dispose of the lab itself. Then we started the ACS Container program, and we saved $3.2 million our first year out of the gate. Our waste cost last year was just over $250,000.”
After a law enforcement agency has confiscated equipment used to make meth and quarantined the house that contains it, the responsibility of cleaning the home falls to the property owner, Lt. Bill Doelle, narcotics officer with the Maury County Sheriff’s Department, said Tuesday.
“Most of our meth cookers are renters,” Doelle said. “The people they’re renting from are doing a lot of work to clean these houses.”
To ensure the house is fit for residents again, property owners will call upon a certified industrial hygienist like Barry Westbrook, owner of DocAir in Franklin. Paying a hygienist to clean and inspect the building falls to the property owner, although Westbrook said one of his clients charged a tenant with vandalizing the house he was renting to her so his insurance would pay for the cleaning.
“Certified industrial hygienists were written into the law,” Westbrook said. “The law says that we can go across the quarantine tape and evaluate hazards.”
He said it is the job of building hygienists to clean a surface in the house and test it to see if all contaminants and residue have been removed. The standard of cleanliness, which is set by the State of Tennessee, is so strict that sometimes it is easier to paint or remove a wall rather than give it repeated cleaning, Westbrook said.
But he said the real problem with methamphetamine is the drug itself.
“From a toxicology point of view, I think, how much of a health risk am I going to be exposed to compared to other chemicals in my environment?” Westbrook said. “What I see is, we’re going to an extreme and misinforming the public on the actual chemical dangers of meth. You’ve got one guy injecting it into his bloodstream, and we have to wear protective suits in the house it was made in.”
Westbrook, Farmer and Doelle all agreed that the face of the drug is changing, so the methods for facing it should change as well.
“Years ago, there were all kinds of dangerous chemicals used, like phosphorous and ammonia,” said Doelle, who has been with the sheriff’s department for 33 years. “Now it’s not quite the same thing. Now they make everything in two-liter drink bottles.”
According to the DEA, there were 1,585 meth-lab related incidents in Tennessee in 2012.
Farmer said there are two possible solutions to the problem.
“The solutions are to find some type of reoccurring funding or stop the meth labs,” he said. “In this day and time, drug enforcement has changed forever. We’re always going to have some type of synthetic drug made in a domestic, clandestine setting. We have to have clan lab units, I think. Now the question is, how are we going to pay for them?”