State and local narcotics investigators say the downsizing of meth labs has cut the cost of cleaning up behind the drug dealers.
“Back in the old days, when you had full-blown labs you could spend upwards of $20,000 or $30,000 to clean up a site. Now I would guess maybe $5,000 or $10,000 depending on what kind of chemicals you’ve got to get rid of and how much of it there is,” said Barry McElroy, commander of the Rome-Floyd Metro Task Force.
Prior to January 2012, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency bore most of the cost of cleaning up local meth labs.
In the spring of 2015, Georgia established a central storage program that has dramatically reduced the cost of containment and cleanup efforts.
Wayne Smith, GBI special agent in charge of the Georgia Clandestine Lab Response Program, said the cost of cleaning up the smaller “one-pot” or “shake and bake” labs is now generally in the range of $300-$400 each.
Smith said that once a lab is taken out of service, the chemicals and contaminated materials are taken to one of the central storage locations. “The containers are designed as hazardous waste storage buildings and are about a quarter the size of a tractor-trailer,” Smith said. “If we encounter a lab with over 220 pounds of hazardous waste then we just have the contractor come direct to the location of the lab.”
Smith said that the DEA actually makes the final arrangement for pick-up of the containers.
Smith said the disposal fee is currently set at $3,500 as long as the waste is less than 220 pounds.
The only cost to the local agency is the cost of training to be certified to handle the materials involved in the cooking of meth. McElroy could not estimate what the cost of that training is on an individual basis.
Once a lab is encountered, law enforcement personnel submit the site to a national database maintained by the DEA.
Smith said that, for the most part, training for lab response is provided to Georgia law enforcement personnel by the DEA at Quantico, Virginia, along with some special courses held in Georgia at no charge to state and local agencies. “This is part of a national DEA program on clandestine lab enforcement and response,” Smith said.
McElroy said the local task force has two members certified to handle materials involved in the cleanup of a meth lab.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cooking up one pound of meth can produce upwards of six pounds of toxic waste. The ingredients in meth can be corrosive, explosive, flammable, toxic and potentially radioactive.
Chemical residue can remain in a house, motel room, apartment, trunk of a car, wherever the drug is cooked, up to months after the lab has been shut down.
Smith said the actual level of contamination depends on how the ingredients were handled.
“Virtually all of the ingredients are derived from consumer products like drain opener, lantern fuel, cold tablets, lithium batteries, cold packs and others,” Smith said. “These products are relatively safe as long as they are used as intended.”
On the other hand, Smith said when the lithium is removed from a lithium battery casing to make meth, it can come into contact with water and if it does it will burn. “So in a clandestine lab setting, bits of materials such as this can contaminate an area and create risk, the level of contamination depends on how carefully the materials were handled.”
Damage from the remains of a large meth lab can be widespread. Residue can seep into the cloth covering of furniture and curtains.
“It’s from the burn off of the gases that are being cooked,” said McElroy. He said the cooking of meth is much more of a contaminating factor than smoking it. “When you’re cooking it you’ve always got the potential for explosions,” McElroy said. “It produces a gas that is extremely deadly to virtually any living organism.”
Chemicals can be dumped into soil, flushed into sewer systems and could potentially leach into ground water, septic systems and wells.
“In Georgia, we handle cleanup and disposal via specially trained sworn personnel who identify, adulterate, label, package and transport hazardous waste found at clandestine lab sites,” Smith said. “Waste is our responsibility and any ‘contamination’ is the responsibility of the property owner.”