Government cuts meth cleanup funds; local agencies to suffer
Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2011 9:09 pm
By: Chris Menees, Staff Reporter
By CHRIS MENEES
Federal funding for the cleanup of hazardous methamphetamine labs has run out, leaving local law enforcement agencies scrambling for options.
Tennessee Meth Task Force chief Tommy Farmer said law enforcement agencies for more than a decade have used grant money from the federal Community Oriented Policing Services to pay for disposal of the toxic, potentially explosive materials used in making the addictive stimulant methamphetamine.
He said Tennessee alone is losing about $5 million and there could be other cuts related to meth enforcement ahead.
Farmer told the Asso-ciated Press that about 2,100 meth labs were busted in Tennessee last year — with each cleanup costing $2,500 on average — and the total is projected to increase this year.
Drug Enforcement Ad-ministration spokesman Rusty Payne said in an e-mail statement Wednesday that “DEA anticipates that funding for the cleanup of meth labs will be exhausted this week.”
Obion County Sheriff Jerry Vastbinder told The Messenger today that the money has already run out.
“The reason the COPS money for cleanup has already run out is lab numbers are up 38 percent across the state right now,” he said. “The DEA was looking at it running out in April, but when they got to checking the figures, it was already depleted.”
Union City Police Chief Joe Garner said the City of Union City is “economi-cally stressed” just like other cities right now and the loss of funding for meth lab cleanup would be “a devastating blow.” He said meth lab cleanup can quickly run into the thousands of dollars.
Vastbinder added, “Obion County does not have the money to pay for cleanup, the state doesn’t. Without federal assistance, it falls back on the locals.”
Vastbinder said the number of meth labs in Obion County has seen an increase in the past year. He said one of the largest locally occurred about a year ago in the South Fulton area and was a federal case where the cleanup was paid by the DEA. It took three days to clean.
Both Vastbinder and Garner also said there is an increase locally in “shake-and-bake” meth labs, a mobile method that involves mixing the toxic ingredients in a bottle.
Vastbinder will be at-tending a Tennessee Meth Task Force board of dir-ectors meeting Friday in Nashville, where the funding situation will be discussed.
He said the board is already looking at several different options to help ease the financial burden on cities and counties across the state for meth lab cleanup.
One option could be utilizing regional bio-hazard dumpsters that would allow law enforcement officers in a certain mile radius to do their own lab cleanup and take the materials to the dumpster. However, once the dumpster is full, there would be the expense of having contractors remove it.
Another option could be asking the DEA to adopt any large meth lab cases, which would result in the DEA paying for the cleanup out of that agency’s seizure money. But Vastbinder said those funds won’t last long either.
Yet a third option for cleanup of a significant size lab could involve local law enforcement contacting a bio-hazard contract cleanup company and then seeking reimbursement through a federal environmental agency.
“Say if it’s a sheriff’s office case, the county would be liable for cleanup, which could go from $5,000 to $30,000 depending on size, and could file with the Environmental Protection Agency to try to get reimbursed through a superfund for hazardous cleanups. Then it would be up to the EPA on whether or not they would reimburse us,” Vastbinder said. “That’s one of those iffy things.”
Vastbinder said yet another factor is Tennessee having been receiving $4 million per year from the government for the state’s Meth Task Force — which includes a response truck and educational resources for law enforcement officers to become lab certified and obtain free equipment.
“It looks like that funding may be cut off,” he said.
Yet another area impacted by cuts is the grant funding which supplies regular task force funds and drug court funds in judicial districts across the state. Vastbinder said the funding is being cut nationwide and it could have an affect locally.
“Right now, our drug task force is strong enough that it would be self-sufficient for a while, but in the long run, it’s going to hurt everybody across the state,” the sheriff said.
Farmer and other law enforcement officials — including Vastbinder and Garner — are also encouraging state lawmakers to pass legislation that would make pseudoephedrine a schedule drug and would require a prescription to purchase products that contain pseudoephedrine, a decongestant ingredient used to make meth.
The Tennessee Pharma-cists Association opposes requiring a prescription to buy the pseudoephedrine products and supports a competing measure that would instead create a real-time electronic system to track all sales of pseudoephedrine.
Vastbinder said the pharmaceutical companies are claiming the legislation would place a burden on the average citizen because they would have to see a doctor and obtain a prescription for drugs that contain pseudoephedrine. However, he said the proposed bill actually states that a pharmacist can prescribe the drug “on the spot at the pharmacy.”
“There are actually over 60 different types of drugs that do the same thing as pseudoephedrine that don’t have it in them,” he added. “Pseudoephedrine is the main chemical needed to produce meth.”
Garner said if the bill is not passed now, it’s going to create a heavier tax burden on the citizens in the long-run due to the continued costs associated with meth lab cleanup.
“The cost is going back to the state and the local jurisdictions,” he said.
Vastbinder said Miss-issippi made pseudoephedrine a schedule drug last year and saw a 75 to 80 percent decrease in the number of meth labs in the first six months alone. However, the number of lab seizures and illegal pseudoephedrine purchases in counties along the Mississippi state line in Tennessee increased drastically as meth makers went from pharmacy to pharmacy — even as far up as the Jackson area — purchasing the drug.
“If we don’t make it a schedule drug in Tennessee and those states around us do, they’ll be coming to Tennessee,” Vastbinder said. “We’ve got to act on it.”
“Basically, the law has been proven in Mississippi,” Garner added. “Kentucky has introduced the same type of law. If we don’t pass this law and others do, we will incur the wrath of all the meth cooks coming to Tennessee.”
Staff Reporter Chris Menees may be contacted by e-mail at cmenees@ ucmessenger.com.
Published in The Messenger 2.24.11