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 around.
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.
"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 2011.
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 costs 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 afterward.
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."