Meth Labs Multiply as Cleanup Dollars Shrink

Local governments struggle to find funds to clean up toxic leftovers.

April 4, 2011— -- 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.

Just as it's getting easier for users to make methamphetamine, federal budget cuts are making it harder for authorities to dispose of meth labs' toxic leftovers.

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.

"A Huge Concern"

"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.

Toxic Materials Hazardous to Clean Up

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."

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.