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Toxic Wasteland

Addicts aren't the only ones suffering from methamphetamine use. The drug's adverse side-effects also plague the environment

By Rafer Guzman

METHAMPHETAMINE is "cooked" in clandestine laboratories usually ensconced in abandoned shacks in rural areas or in cheap motels on the outskirts of cities. The chemical compounds left over--mostly corrosive acids and flammable liquids--are classified as hazardous material by the EPA.

"When the crooks get through with their cooks," says Ed Machado of the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, "they'll dump [the waste] in the fields or along the freeways--and they also put it down septic tanks, which could end up in the water supply. They're dumping it in toilets, down drains. Anywhere they can dump it, they'll dump it."

In July of 1995, the EPA's Department of Toxic Substance Control became responsible for cleaning up methamphetamine labs discovered by local and state law enforcement officials. DTSC's Karl Palmer, who supervises the task force that cleans up meth labs, says they average 100 to 110 labs per month. In 1995, he reports, his group cleaned up 963 labs.

Common toxic substances found in the labs include sodium hydroxide, the corrosive ingredient in drain cleaner, and red phosphorous, an unstable chemical which can break down and spontaneously combust. "Some of these things are shock sensitive," says Palmer. "If you step on them, they can catch on fire."

The fumes given off during production are also highly toxic. Lab operators in rural areas, BNE officials report, will often pump the fumes out through a pipe which leads into the soil to ensure that passersby don't follow their noses to the laboratory.

"In an apartment or house," says Dan Pellissier, an EPA spokesperson, "the residues from the steam and the condensation can seep into the paint and the wallpaper and the wallboard. So [DTSC] may have to rip up the carpet and the drywall and treat it as hazardous waste."

Under environmental laws, property owners--even if they were unaware of the illegal activity--can be made to pay to clean up the meth-makers' messes. More often than not, however, the state of California foots the bill. The EPA's annual budget for meth clean-ups is currently $1.5 million, according to Pellissier. Palmer notes that last year's cleanups cost the EPA $2.5 million.

"Unfortunately, there's been a great expansion in the number of meth labs in California," Pellisier says. "If you pay attention to the press, there's one every day getting busted. And we have to clean up after them."

"The media has portrayed it as being a rural problem," Palmer says, "and I don't think that's accurate. We've done labs in every conceivable area. Think about what a meth lab needs: water, electricity and privacy. That could be the self-storage unit down the block, a Winnebago, your neighbor's garage, a chicken shack out on the south 40, a $300,000 house in Los Gatos--I don't think there's any place that's free from a potential meth lab."

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From the August 15-21, 1996 issue of Metro

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