By William R. Toler | email@example.com
ROCKINGHAM — With the year only half over, Richmond County has seen more methamphetamine labs than the previous year, showing the drug continues to be a growing problem.
The N.C. State Bureau of Investigation has responded to 20 meth labs in the county so far this year — the second-highest number in the state, behind Johnston County, which was the second-highest last year with 46 labs.
Statistics from 2014 show that Richmond tied with Stanly County for the seventh-highest number of labs: 17. Gaston County led the state with 83 and Onslow County was third with 25.
The SBI responded to 25 meth labs in Richmond County from 2001-13 and more than 80 in neighboring Anson County since 2010.
Because of the increase in labs the last couple of years in Richmond County, the SBI and the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office initiated a federal investigation with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Greensboro, according to Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Kelly Page.
“As a result of that investigation there have been 35 meth manufacturers and pseudoephedrine pill collectors indicted federally,” she said. “The investigation is ongoing. We think it is really making an impact in that area.”
SIZE DOESN’T MATTER
The first month of the year saw more than 10 people arrested on meth charges, including a half-dozen in two days by Rockingham police.
Hamlet police, along with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office and SBI, mopped up a meth lab in late February on Entwistle Street. The following week, deputies wrapped up a six-month investigation targeting meth cooks, netting several arrests.
While some have been full labs and others just one-pot cooks, like the one discovered by deputies in a car two weeks ago, the SBI says the threat remains the same.
“There is no difference,” said Page. “Even if it’s just a one-pot, it’s just as dangerous.”
Page — who started working in the crime lab 12 years ago and has spent the past decade responding to meth labs — said the chemical hazards associated in any size cook are all very similar.
“A smaller one may not take us as long to clean up,” she said. “But we approach them all the same. They all pose the same danger to law enforcement and the community.”
She said containers are smaller than what the agency saw 10 years ago as cooks have resorted to the one-pot or “shake-and-bake” method.
According to Page, any kind of plastic bottle will work, but it usually depends on the preference of the manufacturer.
“It’s by and large the majority of what we’re seeing,” she said, adding that 86 percent of the 557 labs the agency responded to last year were one-pot cooks.
Page said sometimes agents may find just one bottle — or 50, depending on how the manufacturers are disposing of their previous cooks.
Because of the chemicals used in the manufacturing process, the most common hazards are fire or explosions, in addition to chemical inhalation.
The main ingredient in meth is pseudoephedrine, a chemical commonly found in cold medicines.
State law relegates the sale of any pharmaceutical product containing pseudoephedrine to behind the counter of a pharmacy in an effort to combat meth production. Sales are also limited to no more than three packages per month to individuals at least 18 years old with a photo ID, according the N.C. Attorney General’s Office.
By law, pharmacies are also connected through an electronic tracking system that logs the sale of pseudoephedrine products and will alert pharmacists the potential buyer has reached his legal limit. This system networks not only pharmacies in North Carolina, but 20 other states as well.
Other meth ingredients include: alcohol, drain cleaner, battery acid, paint thinner, lye, lithium (from batteries), antifreeze, starter fluid and cat litter.
“Gasses produced during the process are dangerous to breathe in,” Page said.
She said if meth is made in a home or hotel room, the chemicals can go airborne, seep into porous materials — mattresses, bedding, carpet, clothing — and contaminate the residence. The room or home would then have to be decontaminated before being safe to live in again.
According to the SBI, the drug also poses an environmental hazard, as up to five pounds of toxic waste is created when meth is made in a lab, which pollutes the surrounding land and water when dumped.
The SBI doesn’t decontaminate, Page said. The agency is only responsible for removing the raw materials — collecting items of evidence for criminal prosecution.
It’s up to local health departments to oversee decontamination, which can be handled by a certified private company like Hayden Construction.
For cleaning up meth labs, a minimum of two agents with special training in dealing with hazardous materials are sent to the scene, Page said. Some local officers also have the training and help out.
She said the number of responding agents can depend on the size of the cook, the availability of agents or the size of the property that needs to be searched.
The SBI has about 100 trained agents in its Clandestine Laboratory Response Program — which was created in 1988 — to respond to hidden drug labs, according to the agency’s website. The program includes crime scene, crime lab, arson and general field agents, as well as those from the Strategic Response Team and Diversion and Environmental Crimes Unit, with response vehicles in Asheville, Charlotte, Clinton, Hickory, Raleigh and Sylva.
The first step is to make sure all the legal paperwork, including search warrants, is in place, she said. After that, agents make a plan for who’s going in and what equipment is needed.
To protect themselves, agents don chemical-resistant suits, rubber gloves and air-purifying respirators.
After conducting a search, agents bring out all chemicals and materials used to make the meth and lay them out on a sheet of plastic.
The items are then photographed and documented and agents may take samples for lab testing.
Agents have to make sure the caustic cocktail is stable before it’s packed up and transported.
Eventually, all materials are disposed of by a hazardous waste contractor.
Reach reporter William R. Toler at 910-817-2675 and follow him on Twitter @William_r_Toler.