By BILL DRAPER and JIM SALTER
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Police and sheriff's departments in some states ravaged by methamphetamine may have to scale back efforts to bust manufacturers because federal funds dedicated solely to cleaning up the toxic sites has dried up and departments won't want to get stuck footing the bill, several law enforcement officials predict.
The Drug Enforcement Administration announced last month that Congressional funding for its Community Oriented Policing Services Methamphetamine Program has been exhausted, and that renewed funding in the next few years was unlikely. The COPS program provided $19.2 million for meth lab cleanup in the current fiscal year.
The announcement left the states most reliant on the funding, including Tennessee, Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi and Arkansas, scrambling to squeeze money out of already stretched budgets to pay cleanup costs that average about $2,000 per lab but can cost as much as $10,000 per instance. The term lab is used to refer to any place meth is made, including in soda bottles inside cars.
"I think it will change enforcement strategy," said Tony Saucedo, the meth enforcement director for Michigan State Police. "There's no way to be proactive. If we come across one (a meth lab), obviously it's going to have to be handled. You can probably bet that nobody's going to go actively looking for meth labs."
In states that have relied on the COPS program, police or sheriff's departments contact the DEA after a lab bust, and the federal agency would hire a hazmat contractor, often from out of state, to clean up the mess. The system is costly, and a few states, including Missouri, set up their own cheaper disposal systems and won't be as hard hit by the COPS funding freeze.
Tennessee, which this year overtook Missouri as the nation's top meth lab state, received about $4.5 million from COPS last year for meth cleanup - about 2 1/2-times more than any other state received and funding Tennessee will be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
"I'm very concerned that some agencies, some officers, may be placed in uncomfortable positions because of the lack of funding," said Tom Farmer, the director of the meth lab task force in Tennessee, where nearly 2,100 meth labs were busted in 2010. "It's going to jeopardize public safety and it's going to jeopardize the safety of our law enforcement."
Meth is a relatively easy, if dangerous, drug to produce because its ingredients - battery acid, drain cleaner, ammonia and pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in many cold medicines - are easy to get. In the last few years, the highly-addictive stimulant has surged in popularity in parts of the Midwest and South, and the nationwide costs incurred by meth abuse are high - $23 billion in 2005, according to a study by the Rand Corp.
"It's the worst thing we've ever seen in southeastern Tennessee," said Joe Guy, the sheriff of McMinn County, one of the nation's worst-affected counties with 161 meth lab busts or seizures last year. "The kids get taken out of the meth homes. You've got the cleanup time and cost. You've got property damage. You've got the shoplifting and the theft that they do to get the money to make the meth. It spreads throughout our community."
Until recently, the drug was typically made in makeshift labs in people's basements, kitchens and garages. But new laws that limit the amount of pseudoephedrine a person can buy have made it harder to mass-produce the drug and led to an increase in so-called "shake-and-bake" meth-making, in which small amounts are made by shaking the ingredients in soda bottles. These labs are portable and easier to conceal than traditional labs, but more dangerous because of the volatility of the shaken chemicals.
"It's never just one or two bottles," Farmer said. "And the problem with shake-and-bake, it's better defined as a bomb than a chemical meth lab."
Cleaning up a busted lab or discarded shake-and-bake bottle is hazardous. Only people who have received special training are allowed to handle the materials, and only when wearing protective clothing. And the waste and debris collected can't be disposed of in regular landfills.
"Simply breathing this stuff or spilling it on your skin will burn you. Even a dump site that looks dormant can be dangerous," Saucedo said.
The U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees the DEA, contends that states most affected by the COPS spending freeze can use federal money they receive from the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program to pay for meth cleanup. States received $519 million in JAG money last year to use for various law enforcement purposes, and are slated to get the same amounts in each of the next two years, DOJ spokeswoman Jessica A. Smith said.
But critics in state and local law enforcement say the COPS funding freeze will force them to reallocate money they planned to spend elsewhere.
"We have complicated the question in order to look on the bright side and remain positive, I think," said Dave Barton, the director of the Midwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area in Kansas City, Mo. "Within the $519 million, state and local government can use these funds for cleanup, but will have to not spend that money on value-added activities, like salaries, equipment, training."
Farmer said Tennessee is looking into developing its own meth disposal program, such as the one Missouri implemented, but that it currently doesn't have the $300,000 to $500,000 needed to pay for hazardous waste disposal containers it would need to start the program.
Missouri, which was long the nation's top meth producer, began training local law enforcement officials to remove and dispose of hazardous materials and established more than 20 sites around the state for the disposal of those materials. As a result, a typical meth lab cleanup in Missouri costs $500 or $600 - far less than the $3,000 to $10,000 the DEA typically pays cleanup contractors, said Jason Grellner, a Franklin County, Mo., police officer and vice president of the Missouri Narcotics Officers Association.
Guy, the McMinn County sheriff, said despite the cleanup funding cut he sees no alternative but to continue hunting down meth labs.
"We have an obligation to the public to keep fighting this," Guy said. "We're not going to slow down."