Pubdate: Sun, 07 Aug 2005
Source: Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC)
Copyright: 2005 Evening Post Publishing Co.
Author: Glenn Smith


In recent years, number of Lowcountry labs has grown considerably

It was a sticky June morning when Charleston County investigators swept down
on the secluded slice of Yonge's Island. Their target: a methamphetamine
"cook" brewing his latest batch of the highly addictive drug.

In just a few minutes, detectives had slapped handcuffs on the suspect and
placed him under arrest. But their real work was just beginning.

Wearing protective suits, investigators carefully picked through the site
for more than six hours, ever watchful for the danger posed by harmful
vapors and volatile chemicals.

The job chewed up thousands in tax dollars and the better part of a day for
some 15 law enforcement officers, as well as a dozen firefighters, emergency
medical workers, hazardous material specialists and state environmental
officials. That was before crews even began probing possible environmental
damage to the land.

Welcome to the world of meth.

"You end up putting a lot of time and manpower into these things, and you
get nothing out of it," said Lt. David Robertson of the county's metro
narcotics squad. "If this were a business, it would bankrupt you."

The number of Lowcountry meth labs has grown dramatically in recent years,
forcing law enforcement agencies to devote increasing amounts of money and
manpower to combating the problem.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration spent $499,000 in the past
fiscal year cleaning up 254 meth labs in South Carolina. The agency is on
pace to match those numbers this year. Since October, the DEA has spent
$475,000 in the Palmetto State cleaning up 209 labs, 51 of them in the
Lowcountry, said John Ozaluk, agent in charge of the DEA in South Carolina.

An average lab with no complications costs at least $2,000 to clean up, and
"the cost only goes up from that point," Ozaluk said.

At the local level, police and sheriff's departments have had to scrape
together money to prepare and outfit officers to safely dismantle labs and
secure crime scenes rife with hazardous materials.

"It can put a pretty good strain on your budget," said Sgt. Delmar Johnson,
a North Charleston police narcotics supervisor.

Protective suits alone can cost anywhere from $25 to $1,000 each, depending
on the level of shielding required. At the end of the job, the suits go in
the trash, contaminated and unusable a second time.

Charleston County's narcotics unit might go through $500 worth of disposable
suits, respirator cartridges and other equipment in the course of the
typical meth lab bust, said Detective John Nice. That, of course, doesn't
begin to address the costs of manpower to investigate and dismantle the

"We spend eight to 12 hours working on a lab, minimum," said Berkeley County
Sheriff's Lt. Bruce Ashe, a narcotics unit supervisor. "That's a whole
shift, and it takes our entire unit to go into these things."

Berkeley County recently sought to add three more narcotics investigators,
but there wasn't enough money to do so. The sheriff's office had to spend
$10,000 to buy two breathing apparatuses for deputies working meth cases,
and work is under way to outfit a mobile equipment trailer for responding to
lab sites, Ashe said.

Authorities don't have much choice but to absorb such costs, and they see
little end in sight.

Methamphetamine is a highly addictive drug that can be produced quickly
almost anywhere with minimal investment and sold at a hefty profit. Locally,
clandestine labs have been discovered in home kitchens, in hotel rooms, on a
30-foot power boat and in the bed of a pickup truck, the product "cooking"
as the driver motored along.

South Carolina is hardly alone. The DEA spent nearly $18.6 million cleaning
up meth labs across the nation in the 2004 fiscal year. A recent survey of
500 law enforcement agencies by the National Association of Counties found
that about 90 percent reported increases in meth-related arrests in the past
three years.

More than half of the sheriffs interviewed identified meth as the most
serious drug problem facing their departments. Use of the drug is growing,
with more than 12 million Americans having tried it at least once, according
to federal statistics.

Lab seizures have exploded statewide since fiscal year 2000-01, when just 10
labs were discovered. The Upstate and other regions of South Carolina
typically see increasing meth activity, but the number of Lowcountry labs
has been steadily growing, too. Between January and September 2004, police
in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties arrested more than 30 people
with connections to at least 21 meth labs.

The problem is growing so quickly that Ninth Circuit Solicitor Ralph
Hoisington recently assigned a special prosecutor to handle meth cases.
South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster is in the process of
interviewing candidates for a similar job at the state level.

"These cases are more time-consuming to prosecute," said Edward Knisley,
Hoisington's meth prosecutor. "There are a lot more chemical elements to be
analyzed than in a typical case, and it's time-consuming for the (police)
labs and us."

There has been some talk of establishing a regional meth task force, but so
far nothing has materialized. For now, each agency is largely tackling the
problem on its own, with varying degrees of help from the DEA.

About 120 law enforcement officers across the state are certified to enter
meth labs, take control and extract evidence after receiving 40 hours in
training from DEA instructors, Ozaluk said. The agency also recently spent
$106,000 on a specialized vehicle equipped with protective suits, air packs,
lights, generators and other equipment to help agents responding to meth lab
sites, he said.

Rural Dorchester County has seen the highest number of clandestine labs
locally, with 14 meth operations uncovered so far this year. The sheriff's
office has four deputies assigned to its narcotics squad, but the unit
probably needs twice that many to deal with the growing meth problem,
Sheriff's Sgt. Michael Miller said. There's just no money available to
expand that squad, he said.

In neighboring Colleton County, the sheriff's office is planning to send
deputies for training to increase the number of people qualified to work
meth lab cases. Though only three labs have been uncovered there in the past
year, deputies have arrested more than 30 people in recent months in
connection with thefts of a chemical used to make the drug, Capt. Ted
Stansfield said.

Drug units typically help pay for themselves with seizures of cash, vehicles
and property used in the narcotics trade. With meth labs, however, there is
little or nothing to seize. Everything is contaminated -- junk.

"In a meth type situation, you are probably going to get rid of anything and
everything," said Charleston police Lt. Greg Whitaker, head of the
department's environmental response unit.

Methamphetamine is made from common household items such as denatured
alcohol, boxes of matches, ammonia, lye, tincture of iodine, lithium strips
from batteries and over-the-counter medications containing pseudoephedrine.
Some of the ingredients are highly volatile and could ignite or explode if
they are mixed or stored improperly. Just breathing some of the chemicals
can be hazardous. Inhaling phosphine gas, chlorine gas and anhydrous ammonia
can cause irreparable damage to a person's lungs or central nervous system.

It's a dirty business. One West Ashley motel had to spend $7,000 this year
to re-outfit a room after it was contaminated by a guest-run meth lab,
authorities said.

Another hotel had to gut and replace an entire room to get rid of the taint,
said Thom Berry, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and
Environmental Control.

"You're talking about taking out everything from the carpeting to sheetrock,
toilet fixtures, ceiling beams," he said.

The Yonge's Island site raided by Charleston County investigators in June
had been the site of another meth lab operation just one year earlier. The
accused meth cook was still on probation for the first lab when authorities
shut down the new operation, deputies said.

Investigators found indications that waste products from the lab had been
dumped around the 4-acre property for about 18 months, Nice said.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control was called in amid
concerns that hazardous materials had leached into the water table and
nearby wells.

A private contractor dug trenches on the site and retrieved soil samples.
Preliminary tests didn't indicate a problem, but final results won't be
available for two or three weeks, Berry said.

"Certainly, the work done here is going to go easily into the tens of
thousands of dollars, and this is just one site," he said.

The state can try to go after the cook to recoup those costs, but often lab
operators are drug addicts who have all their money tied up in their meth

"He's not cooking to get rich," Robertson said. "He's cooking to get high." 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Josh