Federal officials say methamphetamines, or meth, is the fastest growingdrug in the U.S. Meth is easy to make, and can be manufactured in smallplaces. That has led to the mushrooming of the 21st century’s version ofmoonshine distilleries — clandestine labs where meth is made. In manystates, meth labs were unheard of until the early 1990’s. Yet in 1998, morethan 1600 labs were seized across the nation. Today, hundreds of labs arebeing discovered across the region. With these homemade laboratories comegallons of waste and some major environmental problems. The Great LakesRadio Consortium’s Dan Gorenstein reports:
Federal officials say methamphetamines, or meth, is the fastest growing
drug in the U.S. Meth is easy to make, and can be manufactured in
small places. That has led to the mushrooming of the 21st century’s version of moonshine
distilleries – clandestine labs where meth is made. In many states, meth labs were
unheard of until the early 1990’s. Yet in 1998, more than 16-hundred labs were seized
across the nation. Today, hundreds of labs are being discovered across the region. And
with these homemade laboratories come gallons of waste and some major environmental
problems. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Dan Gorenstein reports:
(sound of footsteps crunching in dead snow crusted grass)
One autumn afternoon about two years ago, conservation officer Bruce Hall
stopped by this small hobby farm in north-central Minnesota. He was
expecting to bust a deer poacher. But deer poaching wasn’t the only thing
he found happening down on the farm.
“In the distance along the tree line, which is probably about 200
yards away there was a shack that was used for making meth. This person knew that it
was something he wouldn’t want around the local area, so he made it back
there. It looks like a deer shack.”
A search of the area revealed 23 guns, cocaine, marijuana and of course, a
makeshift methamphetamine lab.
Mom and Pop meth labs like the one Officer Hall stumbled on are
increasingly common. That’s because the drug is cheap and easy to produce, says
Deborah Durkin from the Minnesota Department of Health.
“It takes an enormous amount of money, time and nasty connections to
get coco leaf from the jungle to the form of cocaine in the cities but it
takes 15 minutes on the internet and a trip to Wal-Mart to make meth. Not only is the
drug simple to make, but little space is needed. Most of the
labs can fit into a Coleman sized cooler, or a two by two container, which
means these operations are portable. In a training session for a group of
paramedics, public safety and law enforcement officers DEA agent John
Cotner explains that every county in Minnesota has had contact with meth. And how
a once witty joke is now obsolete.”
“The big joke is, I would say we’d seized one in everything but a
tree house. Last summer they seized one out of a tree house in Wright
County. There is no place that an individual or a group of individuals
can’t set up one of these labs and cook.”
Compound the mobility and prevalence of meth labs with their waste and you
have a potential environmental problem. Whether in a residential home in the
city or a farm in the country, the laboratories are leaving a trail of
solvents, lithium, ether and anhydrous ammonia, some serious chemicals.
Serious enough, says Cotner, that when entering a lab site public safety
officers are wearing heavy duty gear.
“We are wrapped up in chem suits, respirators, in some cases self
contained breathing apparatuses, scuba tanks like the firefighters wear. We
are all duct-taped and wrapped and in gloves and boots.”
Officer Bruce Hall meanwhile says the environmental effect is pervasive but
“There is exposure to wildlife, there is damage too on a natural
resource issue. It’s not something where you see the smokestacks and know
they’re polluting. It’s not that kind of an issue.”
The damage can come in many forms. Sometimes the chemicals are simply
flushed down a drain. They can also be buried in containers, or just dumped
out the window. Nobody knows for sure where this particular lab operator
dumped his waste. It could have been right into the ground. And that, Steve
Lee says, could be a serious problem.
“Perhaps the biggest environmental hazard to a meth lab is when they
are in a situation when they are dumping into the ground, or dumping into a
septic tank system and there are neighbors nearby using that groundwater as
a drinking water supply. If those wells are close, then they are at some
hazard of becoming contaminated from those waste chemicals.”
Lee is an environmental officer for the state of Minnesota. He guesses only
about 10 percent of the labs affect natural resources in this way. But on
this lonely county road, the neighbors do drink from wells. That puts them
at risk, say officials, of consuming toxic chemicals that ultimately could
result in liver or kidney damage, neurological problems and an increased
risk for cancer. And even incidental contact can cause burns, or in some
cases, even death.
Which is exactly why the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
issued a warning to hunters and outdoor recreationists this fall. And it’s
why environmental officials across the Great Lakes region are becoming ever
more concerned about the growth in clandestine meth.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Dan Gorenstein.