Jim Salter of the Associated Press reports that many law enforcement agencies are reducing their attempts to shut down methamphetamine manufacturing because they can no longer afford to clean up the labs.
Brian Freskos of North Carolina’s Star News reported back in May that Congress has generally appropriated $10 million for meth lab cleanup annually, and the Druge Enforcement Agency has administered the funds – but this year, the money ran out in February. Freskos writes:
For decades, when police found a meth lab, the federal government funded what was essentially hazardous waste removal. The process often involves people in hazmat suits and masks carefully removing toxic substances that can explode or leach into the water and soil. Removing each site often costs several thousand dollars.
The program is funded through U.S. Department of Justice’s COPS program, which took a financial hit under the current federal spending plan. And meth lab disposal has not even been included in the president’s recommended 2012 budget.
An AP analysis found that among the nation’s top 10 meth-producing states, meth seizures dropped sharply in the states that had depended on federal money and jumped in states that fund their own cleanups.
Cleanup bills aren’t the only costs that meth use has on communities, but they’re one of the easiest to quantify. According to Salter, cleanups typically cost between $2,500 and $5,000 each. “Because meth is made using a volatile mix of ingredients such as battery acid, drain cleaner and ammonia, only crews with specialized training are allowed to handle the materials found in labs. The waste and debris cannot be dumped in a regular landfill, only in specially approved waste sites,” his article explains. Warren County, Tennessee sheriff Jackie Matheny told Salter that they busted 100 labs last year.
In Oklahoma, the state picked up the cleanup costs once the federal money dried up – but it meant they couldn’t pay for the 20 drug investigators and educators they’d planned to hire. By contrast, in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Michigan, lab seizures dropped by more than 30%; in Alabama, they dropped 62%, Salter reports.
Where neither the federal nor state governments pick up the cleanup tab, the costs will fall on individuals. Meth cooks’ families and neighbors will be exposed to fumes. Rental properties where meth was cooked will be remain contaminated, either putting future tenants at risk of hazardous exposures or imposing cleanup costs on landlords. When property owners can’t afford cleanup, homes might sit abandoned, with negative consequences for neighborhoods.
The $10 million meth cleanup fund might look like an easy item for budget cutters to slash, but that doesn’t mean the costs go away – it just means they’re imposed on a smaller group of people, who are probably not well equipped to pay them.