Meth Labs Multiply as Cleanup Dollars Shrink


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 cleanup.

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 coordination.

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 limited.

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 enough.

Other states, such as Tennessee and Arkansas, where the DEA spent almost $5.5 million for cleanup last year, aren't lucky enough to have any help at all.

"We feel like we're burdened," McMurray, the Tennessee detective, said. "We have to do this, we have to clean it up one way or another, but we're worried about where we're going to find the money." contributor Teresa Lostroh is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Lincoln, Neb.

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