Meth Mess

Methamphetamine labs are springing up all over--in homes, apartments, motels. Who's making sure the toxins left behind are cleaned up? Nobody.

Most meth cooks aren't environmentally responsible, to put it mildly. Many simply wash toxic liquid used in cooking meth down a handy drain.

That isn't as dire as it sounds, says Dale Anderson, the manager of DEQ's Emergency Response Team: "There's no real problem with washing [chemicals] down drains, believe it or not."

Anderson says the most dangerous time for anyone who comes into contact with a meth lab is during the actual cooking: ". . . If they're not doing what you'd see in a real chemistry lab, then you've got a severely dangerous situation, with fire hazards and volatile chemicals. But the people most at danger are the people in the labs themselves, by far."

He continues, "By the time the fumes get to neighbors, they've dissipated beyond the point of toxicity. If they can smell it, they may be at risk, yes, in a case of long-term exposure. But hopefully, most people who smell a meth lab call the police."

That sounds reassuring. But little of substance has been published about chemical dangers posed by the burgeoning meth-lab crisis. A noteworthy effort is Ron McDonald's 1995 thesis for Ottawa University, titled Community Environmental and Public Safety Hazards Created by Clandestine Methamphetamine Laboratories.

The 142-page report contains the prescient passage:
"Today, clandestine methamphetamine laboratories are proliferating like the moonshine stills of the Prohibition Era. . . . As these illicit entrepreneurs increase in numbers, so will environmental damage from their clandestine labs. . . . As individual addicts begin to cook up their own batches of methamphetamine, these toxic wastes will be present throughout our city, causing harm to citizens who are exposed to them."

McDonald quotes Bob Nieman, operations manager of Phoenix-based Chemical Waste Management. Nieman--whose firm then contracted to dispose of meth-lab chemicals in Arizona and New Mexico (and still does in Nevada and eastern California)--spoke about the proper way to decontaminate a site.

At the time, Nieman recommended:
* Remove and destroy all "surface materials"--furniture, rugs, drapes, etc.--that have been in proximity with meth-lab chemicals.

* Floors, walls and ceilings should be pressure-washed with a powerful detergent, then coated with cover-up chemicals.

* "Bake" the toxic chemicals out of the walls before reopening a place for occupancy.

Nieman tells New Times that before meth labs began to proliferate, cleanup was much more thorough than it is now.

One reason efforts have flagged is the sheer numbers of labs being busted. Another may be the cost.

DEA stats indicate that, in fiscal 1996--the most recent year in which numbers are available--the agency spent $605,000 to clean up meth labs in Arizona. In fiscal 1995, DEA spent $218,000. The feds say the average cost of a cleanup is about $4,400. Prorating that figure, it likely cost taxpayers more than $1 million in fiscal 1997 to tidy up Arizona's busted meth labs.

"We'd tear down parts of the walls, rip up the carpeting, take out all the contaminated furniture, that sort of thing," Nieman recalls of years past. "Sometimes, it was probably overkill, sometimes it was clearly necessary. . . . Some of these places should have been torched, in my opinion."

Nieman recalls several meth-lab busts at Valley hotels and motels, which raises another untold specter of the meth-lab story. The DEA's Duncan Lingle praises the Mesa Police Department for having one of the nation's most proactive education programs for hotel/motel managers.

Hotel owners and managers travel to Mesa from around the nation, he says, to be educated on how to detect meth labs and related subjects. On January 20, Lingle and Mesa detective Jeff Richter--known as an expert in the field--were scheduled to address, for the first time, hotel operators from Mexico.

"What we've found," Lingle says, "is once the cooks identify a hotel and start cooking at it, then they keep going back to that same hotel. Word spreads, and that hotel is marked. Of course, we're not talking about your Embassy Suites here."

Lingle suggests there may be danger even to patrons who stay in a room next to one in which meth has been cooking: "These chemicals permeate the walls. It's a bad deal."

Police haven't yet found the couple whose apartment on East Campbell served as a clandestine methamphetamine laboratory. A detective says the woman last week filed a missing-persons report concerning her boyfriend.

The apartment isn't for rent yet. But it will be soon.

Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: prubin@newtimes.com

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: dholthouse@newtimes.com

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