Law enforcement agencies nation wide deal with the war on drugs, specifically the manufacturing, on a daily basis.
Their efforts sometimes lead to suspects being arrested usually at sites where the drugs are manufactured.
One aspect of how agencies deal with illegal drug production changed earlier this year. The federal government, in an effort to balance its budget, eliminated funds that paid for the clean up and disposal of methamphetamine labs. Without assistance from the government, law enforcement agencies have had to find funding in already tight budgets.
While the cost for cleaning up a lab can range from $2,000 for a small lab to $10,000 for a larger lab, officials with the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Department and the Conway Police Department have had to pay a company to clean up the labs and hope that they will be reimbursed later on.
According to Capt. Matt Rice, nine requests for reimbursement have been sent from the Sheriff’s Department since February and to date, he has been told that the department may receive reimbursement for four labs. The average cost of each of the requests he has sent is about $2,000.
"Every time we get a lab, we pay the bill up front for the agency to come and clean it up and then send in requests for reimbursement to the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s local government reimbursements program," he said. "We had to shift our budget around to find the funds to clean up these labs and had to take a step back when we were first notified that funding had stopped."
Derek Jennings, co-owner of Safety and Environmental Associates, (SEA, Inc.) the company used by the sheriff’s department to clean up the meth labs their officers bust, said that his workers used to clean about 600 labs a year, but since the government stopped funding the clean up, he expects this year’s numbers to be significantly lower.
"Our business has dropped about 85 percent since the announcement was made in February," he said. "Our workers used to clean about 600 labs annually, but this year, we are looking at about 30. This means that the other 570 labs are just sitting out there contaminating neighborhoods. They are a plague to communities. If a child were to find one, it could be catastrophic."
Jennings said he is afraid that labs are being neglected because the cost is beyond the budget for most law enforcement agencies.
"Based on the numbers from my company, I would have to say that the reality is that the clean up for meth labs is going undone because of cost and remaining as a public nuisance," Jennings said. "No one is getting money from the government unless it is a military agency, but what does that mean for our communities?"
Both Faulkner County Sheriff Karl Byrd and Conway Police Chief A.J. Gary have stated that leaving the labs without cleaning them up is not an option and their officers are still busting labs when they are made aware of them.
"Losing the funding for the clean up has been a nightmare for every law enforcement agency throughout the nation," Byrd said. "The occurrence of labs is on the upswing again and we have to do whatever we can to get this stuff taken care of, without having had the opportunity to budget for it. Next year we will have to budget for the expense but this year, we had to find the money in the existing budget."
Gary can relate to Byrd because his department is in the same position. He had to request that $10,000 be moved from a forfeiture account to be designated for clean up expenses until it is provided for in an upcoming budget.
One option Gary and Byrd have been looking into is a container program. Funding is available for agencies willing to participate and both men said that they are in favor of that solution.
"Our narcotics officers are trained to handle the chemicals needed to make meth, so they would know the proper way to handle it for disposal," Byrd said. "If we participated in the container program, the officers would have to put the ingredients from the lab into containers and deliver them to a facility where they would be destroyed. Our officers would not need any extra training that I’m aware of and this could be a money saving option for us."
Gary said that this program may be the answer law enforcement agencies throughout the state are looking for right now.
"We can’t ignore the danger of chemicals being left behind and we have an obligation to dispose of the items properly," he said. "If we could handle part of that aspect ourselves, it could mean a substantial savings for our budgets."
Not everyone is on board with the container program however. Jennings said that the potential for officers to be hurt during the transport of the hazardous materials is greater because they do not have the proper training to handle it.
"We are talking about a lot of chemicals in one area and most officers do not have the specialized training that I believe you need to handle these chemicals," he said. "Not all labs are unstable but all it takes is for one to become volatile and an officer might be harmed. It is a solution because it is all we’ve got right now, but in my opinion, it is setting officers up to fail."
However, everyone is in agreement about the dangers of manufacturing meth. If anyone suspects that someone is cooking meth, contact the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Department at 450-4914, the Conway Police Department at 450-6120 or text a tip to 274637 (CRIMES) using keyword Conway.
(Candie Beck is a staff writer and can be reached at 505-1238 or at firstname.lastname@example.org)