Making methamphetamine may be a small-scale operation today, thanks to newer, more compact methods.
However, the response by law enforcement and health officials to remove those labs – like the one busted this week across from Winthrop University – is much larger and more expensive.
Older, more obselete forms of making meth involved items like pots and hoses, and the drug was actually cooked on a stovetop or hot surface, according to Marvin Brown, commander of the York County Multijurisdictional Drug Enforcement Unit. The newer “one-pot” or “shake and bake” method involves mixing the ingredients in a plastic 20-ounce bottle, causing a chemical reaction that makes methamphetamine.
Regardless of how it’s made, the chemicals are just as volatile. Six agents in the drug unit are certified to handle the chemicals in a meth lab busted by law enforcement, Brown said, and they typically remove the ingredients and items and place them on a tarp outside.
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Investigators recovered three one-pot labs in a trash container outside the Park Avenue Extension building Tuesday.
“Old meth labs where they cooked on the stove made a much bigger mess,” Brown said. “These new meth labs don’t leave much of a mess.”
If a lab is active, meaning someone is in the process of making meth, agents have to wear special suits with masks and air tanks to enter the area and handle the chemicals, Brown said. A number of additional agencies will respond if the lab is active, including firefighters, EMS and York County Emergency Management, which has its own suits and trained technicians.
Old meth labs where they cooked on the stove made a much bigger mess. These new meth labs don’t leave much of a mess.
-Marvin Brown, York County drug unit commander
A suspect actively cooking meth must be decontaminated before they are taken to either jail or the hospital, Brown said. This is done with a tent set up on the property and hazmat crew members who get the person disrobed and decontaminated.
“We do that, but we do it with respect,” Brown said.
Crews and investigators spend, on average, between one and six hours removing chemicals and items used in a meth lab, Brown said. The process takes even longer if there’s a fire or explosion.
Once the chemicals have been removed, they have to be sealed in special containers and taken to be destroyed. Brown said most agencies contract with the state, which sends hazmat crews to remove the chemicals from the scene and take them to be destroyed. The crews typically have to come from Columbia or Spartanburg.
The state can only dispatch those hazmat crews if the local law enforcement agency contacts the State Law Enforcement Division, according to SLED spokesman Thom Berry.
“When we are called in to assist in the discovery of a meth lab, we will activate the state contractor for gross decontamination cleanup,” Berry said. “They will take away any evidence and gross contamination that is there.”
If the bottle or chemicals have been discarded on the ground, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control responds to remove the contamination from the ground.
The cost of the cleanup crew removing the chemicals from a single meth lab can be around $3,000, Brown said. That doesn’t include the taxpayer money spent on other emergency resources and personnel used in the response.
The good news? The number of meth labs in York County has dropped significantly, from 22 each in 2013 and 2014 to around half a dozen in 2015, according to Brown.
Tuesday’s lab on Park Avenue Extension was only the third one handled by York County agents this year.