Counties are shouldering the cost of cleaning up clandestine methamphetamine labs for now, but the state is promising some dollar relief starting in January.
The State Bureau of Investigation announced the start of the Clandestine Laboratory Hazardous Waste Storage Container program, which will help take the place of federal and state funding underwriting methamphetamine-lab removals that ran dry in February. The program will train local officers to neutralize the hazardous materials utilized in methamphetamine making, then have SBI agents take the materials to a site where they will be destroyed by a private contractor the federal Drug Enforcement Agency plans to pay. A $197,000 grant from the Governor’s Crime Commission will launch the project, covering start-up costs, training and equipment.
The program is expected to be up and running by Jan. 1.
The SBI has responded to 227 labs in the state so far this year, more than any other nine-month period since 2005. Three of those were discovered in Jackson County, with clean up costs amounting to several thousand dollars, and several have been found in Haywood County as well.
“This program should eliminate any future expense we would have,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten recently told commissioners. “But we have a couple more months of exposure until that grant starts.”
In what promises to become an increasingly expensive proposition, county taxpayers must now pick up the tab for cleaning up illegal methamphetamine labs.
The federal government notified states in February that it would no longer pay for such clean ups, which involve dangerous, potentially explosive, chemicals and toxic residue. The state covered the cost for a while, but after spending about $165,000 to clean up some 50 labs in North Carolina in the past six months, the state has spent all it wants to and will now place the burden on counties.
More than 230 meth labs were discovered and destroyed in North Carolina last year; Jackson County destroys between one and nine of the illegal labs a year.
Jackson County this week got stuck with its first meth-lab bill.
In this case, the bill was estimated to come to just $1,500, but that’s because the meth lab deputies busted was a particularly primitive operation. Some cleanups downstate of “superlabs” have cost as much as $20,000, according to news reports.
The lab operators were using a makeshift method recently developed called “shake-and-bake,” said Lt. Shannon Queen of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, in which the ingredients are mixed in soda bottles. This can pose great potential dangers, because the shaken chemicals are highly volatile.
During a discussion at a Jackson County meeting this week, Commissioner Doug Cody worried aloud about the possibility of a “huge cleanup” in the future, and the potential cost to a county unprepared for such a financial blow. Queen said that law enforcement and prosecutors routinely seek restitution, but “as the saying goes, you really can’t get blood from a turnip.”
In other words, getting money out of convicted drug dealers could prove an uphill battle for local governments.
Queen said deputies received an anonymous tip late last week that resulted in the bust. Following the lead, they set up surveillance at the bottom of Greens Creek Road on July 29, and discovered Keisha Leigh Maki, 25, of Granite Falls, and Billy Ray Davis, 54 of Waynesville, according to a news release from the sheriff’s department.
The couple was hunkered in the weeded area near where Greens Creek goes into a culvert and crosses under U.S. 441. Queen told commissioners this week that the two were using creek water as part of their meth-cooking cooling process.
Whenever local officers breakup a meth lab, a hazardous-materials mitigation team must come and remove the chemicals involved, and everyone involved — officers and suspects — go through decontamination.
Maki and Davis were both charged with manufacturing methamphetamine, trafficking, possessing precursors for methamphetamine, conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine and possession of drug paraphernalia. Both were being held early this week under $100,000 bonds. Their first court date on the charges was scheduled for Aug. 16.
But a new method for cooking meth has emerged over the past year, threatening to increase the number of “mom and pop” labs at a moment when demand for the drug is high.
“It definitely is on the rise, and I think you can see that in the numbers,” said Special Agent Lee Tritt of the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation.
In 2009, the SBI busted 206 meth labs across the state, compared to 195 labs in 2008 and 157 labs in 2007.
Tritt, who grew up in Sylva, is part of a five-person tactical team charged with dismantling and evaluating clandestine meth labs across the state. Last month, he and other agents took apart a large-scale lab in the Ellijay area of Macon County at the residence of Pamela and David Holland.
It was the fourth such lab discovered in Macon County since the new laws governing the sale of pseudoephedrine took effect in January 2006.
Meth is made by cooking a concoction of household cleaners and over-the-counter medicines. Meth labs peaked in North Carolina in 2005, with 328 labs discovered that year. The number of labs dropped significantly the next year when the new law was passed. Specifically, the law required anyone buying pseudoephedrine and ephedrine to show a photo ID and sign a log book. The law limits buyers to no more than three packages within 30 days from a single location.
But Tritt said the rise of “shake and bake” meth labs, which only use one pot and are highly mobile, has shifted the battle lines during the past year. Now big labs aren’t the primary targets, because anyone with a kitchen can be cooking. And a large quantity of the ingredients are no longer necessary to make a batch.
“Shake and bake is primarily the method we’re seeing in Western North Carolina,” Tritt said.
SBI agents first encountered shake and bake labs in North Carolina around July 2009 in the eastern part of the state. Shake and bake labs have since moved west. The shake and bake process is fast, easy to set up, and produces little waste or evidence for the cook to dispose of.
Meanwhile, the method also requires less pseudoephedrine and yields a cleaner final product.
“It used to take more to cook with,” Tritt said. “Now they can literally cook with one box.”
Tritt has processed more than 300 labs since he began this work in 2003, and he is adamant that if there is one rule to meth production, it’s that it has no boundaries.
“In the western part of the state it could be anywhere. It’s not a rural or an urban thing. It’s everywhere,” Tritt said.
Around 30 percent of all meth labs that SBI agents have responded to so far this year have been shake and bake labs.
With cooking methods readily accessible on the Internet, N.C. Department of Justice spokesperson Noelle Talley said she expects the practice to grow.
“We expect the popularity of shake and bake labs to rise as the method becomes better known throughout the meth production community,” Talley said.
Detective Rick Buchanan of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office investigates drug cases. Buchanan said the poor economy always increases the incidence of drug crime.
“Things are getting worse all over, and I think the economy has a lot to do with it,” Buchanan said. “When the economy is down, our business goes up.”
Buchanan said while the majority of the meth used in his jurisdiction still comes from Mexico, the shake and bake labs have changed the landscape because of what they produce.
“We’ve got labs in Western North Carolina, but a lot of our drugs are still imported,” Buchanan said. “The reason we’re seeing the influx in labs is related to the quality of the dope that’s being imported.”
According to Buchanan meth producers using shake and bake techniques produce products with extremely high levels of purity, while the quality of Mexican meth has declined in response to tougher laws there.
For investigators like Buchanan, the ravages of meth usage go beyond the individual horror stories of physical deterioration and mania. Addiction to the drug increases the rate of child abuse and domestic violence in the household. He said small-scale meth producers have nothing in common with the moonshiners of yesteryear.
“These people have two things in mind,” Buchanan said. “They’re making it to get high, and they’re making it to make money to get more stuff. It’s not like they’re doing it for their families to get by.”
Buchanan said investigators still rely on tips from citizens as the most reliable way to identify meth dealers and producers. Jackson County does not keep track of meth arrests separately, but in 2009 the sheriff’s office recorded 101 felony drug arrests and 52 misdemeanor arrests. Already in 2010 — only halfway through the year — the office has recorded 79 drug felony arrests and 81 misdemeanors, numbers that reflect an increase in drug activity.
For Buchanan, that means finding new ways to put the squeeze on meth producers, whether they’re using one pot or a basement worth of chemicals.
“It has no boundaries. It could be 200 feet from where we’re sitting, or it could be in a tent in the middle of nowhere,” Buchanan said.