“It’s because of the invariables,” he said last week. “If the meth lab is in production or not. The people cooking it — if they’re high on the meth or not.”
Grossman then mentioned the hazardous nature of the materials used to produce meth.
“The chemicals are unpredictable,” he said. “You just about always know you’ll be exposed to a hazardous situation, and you don’t always have the protective equipment you need right there with you. There’s a possibility of chemical exposure, explosions, fire and toxins.
“When you come up on a meth lab, you know you’ll be exposed to all that.”
City and county officials across the country might never get to experience that jolt of adrenaline up close, but they may have gotten light-headed when they read of plans by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to cut the funding that helps local agencies deal with meth lab cleanups, which can cost between $1,500 to $3,000 at each site.
The DEA announced in February that congressional funding for its Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Methamphetamine Program has been exhausted, and that renewed funding in the next few years is unlikely, the Associated Press reported. The COPS program provided $19.2 million for meth lab cleanup in the current fiscal year.
Local law enforcement agencies have always been responsible for getting the meth materials out of a house, apartment, mobile home or even an automobile that can function as a rolling lab. Deputies and detectives don protective suits and then categorize the corrosives, solvents, cooking fuels, heavy salts, lithium batteries, phosphorus and other materials outside.
“You used to call the DEA and tell them you had a meth lab,” Grossman said of the procedure. “They would give you a PO (purchase order) number, and then you’d call one of he companies that come and take the materials and dispose of them.”
Maj. John Gibson with the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office said the department averages 12 to 15 meth lab cleanups a year.
“This is an unbudgeted item this year so we are working with the county finance department to help us with the funding,” he said. “Next year’s budget will include funding for the cleanups. We will also ask the courts for restitutions in these lab cases.”
Chief Jason Parker with the Dalton Police Department said he did not budget any funds for meth lab cleanup because of the “longstanding ability (we have) to work with the DEA on these cases.”
“Consequently, we may need to request additional funds this year if another solution cannot be reached,” he said. “Dealing with these meth labs, large or small, is definitely a local issue, but we must comply with state and federal environmental and safety guidelines when removing and disposing of the various ingredients. Assuming the cleanup costs will remain local in the future, we will now have to plan for that contingency.”
Chief Deputy Ray Sitton of the Murray County Sheriff’s Office said there are many companies that can be called to pick up the meth lab debris, but paying them to do it is the sticking point.
“If there’s no (federal) money, the county will have to pay for it,” he said. “What we’re hoping is that the funding won’t be cut long term.”
Grossman said for every pound of meth cooked, six to seven pounds of toxic waste is produced. And the price tag for removal does not include other expenses, he added.
“That doesn’t count the sheriff’s office if they have to do overtime, and they might also have to call the fire department or EMS because you always have the risk of fire, explosion and possible injury,” he explained.
Lt. Chris West with the Whitfield County Fire Department said his personnel are usually “on standby” where a meth lab is discovered to secure the scene, watch for fire to break out — or an explosion — and possibly decontaminate those removing the materials or provide them with breathing apparatuses if oxygen runs low.
“But we ran into one in Dawnville that was live cooking,” West said. “It had the pipes and funnels and all going, so it was pretty scary. During another incident a deputy ran into a meth lab without knowing it, and we had to decontaminate him.”
Grossman said another expense that is hard to quantify is the effect on those addicted to meth.
“There’s no way to track the medical and economic impact on long-term meth users,” he said. “These are the people who have worn their bodies out and have come down with cancer and other diseases from all of the impurities in the meth. They can’t work and they go on disability.”
Grossman said whether the cooking set-up is a traditional “red phosphorus” lab or the newer “shake-and-bake” method using plastic bottles, the waste left behind must be cleaned up. Oftentimes the “cooks” pour it out onto the ground or flush it into a septic system where it will seep into the ground through fill lines leading to the septic tank, he said.
Tommy Farmer with the Tennessee Meth Task Force said the situation is risky if there’s no federal funding to help with meth lab cleanup.
“I liken it to a loaded gun that’s left lying in a park, you can’t leave it,” he said in comments to WDEF-TV12 in Chattanooga. “You have to do something with it ... and if you don’t do something with it ... somebody’s gonna get hurt.”
Grossman was likewise succinct.
“Surely to God, they wouldn’t leave us like that,” he said of the cut in federal funding. “They can’t leave the whole United States hanging. What about the small (law enforcement) departments?”
Learning about meth labs
The Dalton Fire Department is one of the many agencies that has received methamphetamine lab training from Chief Ray Grossman of the Cohutta Police Department. Firefighter 3 Greg Metcalf said the training is invaluable.
“We’ve all had the training before,” he said of the 25 firemen who went through Grossman’s three-hour class during a shift in February. “But each time you take it you become more aware. As first responders it makes us more aware of what to look for so we won’t put ourselves in more danger.”
From a fireman’s standpoint, it’s helpful to know about corrosives that can cause chemical burns and understand how solvents can burst into flames in certain situations, Metcalf explained.
“It helps to know what stage we might find these products in during the meth lab process,” he said. “A responder will be better prepared to know when to back out and go to plan B, or take evasive action to put ourselves in a safer position.”
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