WASHINGTON — Even as the number of small-time methamphetamine labs is increasing across the United States, federal funding to clean up the toxic sites has dwindled to almost nothing, and President Barack Obama's proposed budget for next year would end the program entirely.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration notified counties and states on Feb. 22 that it no longer could pick up the tab to clean up the toxic chemicals found in meth labs. The loss of federal dollars has those local law-enforcement agencies nervous as they scramble to make up for the funding even as the meth problem mushrooms.
Just this week, meth labs were busted in Florida, Kentucky and Nebraska, according to news reports. A man from Georgia started a small fire in a Charleston, S.C., hotel with his meth lab, police there said.
The drug's impact reaches beyond its users. Earlier this month, a sheriff in the Missouri Ozarks was arrested on charges of dealing the drug, and in North Carolina, 30 children have been removed from meth lab sites since Jan. 1.
Allen County, Ky., a community of some 20,000 people on the Tennessee border, busted nearly 70 labs last year, and is on track to exceed that total this year.
Without federal help, last year's cleanups would have cost $100,000 to $200,000, Special Deputy Shane Britt said.
The state has picked up cleanup costs since February, Britt said. "The question is, what happens going forward?"
Since federal funding evaporated, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations has spent $140,000 to clean up 50 labs around the state, but now that money is gone, too, leaving local police and sheriff's departments to pay the bills.
"We're in a situation that we need Congress to step up to the plate and provide this funding," said Greg McLeod, the director of the North Carolina SBI. "They're passing the buck down to us."
When Congress returns from Easter recess next week, the National Sheriffs' Association will return to its work visiting members of the House of Representatives and the Senate to talk about the need for federal dollars to help local efforts, which can run from $2,000 to upward of $20,000 for major cleanups.
Recent appropriations have been about $10 million a year, but the association thinks at least twice that much is needed.
"It's a community safety issue. It's very dangerous to our environment," said Fred Wilson, the director of operations for the National Sheriffs' Association. "These chemicals are toxic, and they're also very explosive. The money it takes to do this is just not available in local areas."
Cleanup involves workers in white hazmat suits mopping up volatile organic compounds that can leach into the environment, contaminate living quarters and give children chemical burns.
Domestic meth production fell after a 2005 federal law limited individual purchases of over-the-counter pseudoephedrine, a key meth ingredient.
But since then, addicts have figured out new ways to manufacture the drugs. Often, many users pool their supplies in a process known as "smurfing." And a new method, called one-pot cooking, allows the drug to be made more simply.
Among states with the most labs, Tennessee had 2,082 busts last year. Missouri seized 1,960 meth labs.
Presidential budgets have cut funding in recent years from the federal Community Oriented Police Services grant that pays for new hires, training and equipment. Congress historically has been more friendly to the program.
After the federal government faced a shutdown over budget cuts earlier this year, dollars ran dry. The DEA dipped into other pots of money at first, but on Feb. 22 it had to cut off payments, a spokesman said.
"Labs have really spiked," said Rusty Payne, a DEA spokesman. "So as funding is going down, labs are going up."
Advocates for local law enforcement agencies say that's a bad combination.
"This is a cross-jurisdictional issue," said Wilson, of the National Sheriffs' Association. "That's why the federal government needs to be a partner."
With the new influx of Republican freshmen into Congress, it's unclear what will happen to funding for next year. One of those freshmen, U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, said the COPS program had too much potential for waste and was the wrong place for meth-cleanup funding.
Instead, she said, the jurisdictions that are writing the cleanup guidelines ought to foot the bill.
"This is an issue we have to deal with effectively, and in doing so we must address how our enforcement efforts to halt and prevent these practices are being funded and organized," Ellmers said.
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