Local agencies forced to pay for cleaning up toxic mess left behind
HAMILTON - By the time authorities caught up with suspected drug manufacturer Farren Gene Galpin last month, he allegedly had left a toxic trail of three methamphetamine labs in the Missoula and Stevensville areas.
State and local law enforcement officers discovered the labs at rented storage units in Stevensville and Missoula, and at a mobile home near Stevensville - one of the first clandestine labs ever discovered in Ravalli County.
Authorities called in a hazardous materials team from Idaho to clean up the sites and properly dispose of the contaminated supplies. The final cost: $20,000.
But when state officials called the U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Agency to get the usual go-ahead for the cleanup work, they got a surprise.
They learned federal dollars provided to states and local communities to clean up meth labs through the Community Oriented Policing grant ran out last month. No replacement funds are expected the rest of the federal fiscal year. And the federal budget for fiscal year 2001 has no money for DEA to assist states in meth lab cleanup efforts.
Methamphetamine is a synthetic stimulant produced and sold illegally in pill form, capsules, powder and chunks.
"In the past, we'd send a bill to DEA and it was paid, but as the rapid expansion of labs has continued, the money ran out," said Mark Long, Montana Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation narcotics chief in Missoula.
The federal agency managed to scrape up money from its budget for cleanups tied to the Galpin case, but state and local law enforcement officials wonder who will pay for the next meth lab cleanup.
Few if any local agencies across the nation expected the fund's shortfall.
"At this time last year there was a resource, so we didn't ID that (cost) in our budget," said Ravalli County Sheriff Perry Johnson.
State law enforcement agencies in Montana and Idaho also didn't earmark dollars specifically for cleanup of the highly toxic lab sites that often cost thousands to decontaminate.
"The DOJ can't handle a whack like that, let alone a small community like Ravalli County," Long said.
In 1999, Montana law enforcement spent $197,000 to clean up 29 lab sites out of 50 discovered across Big Sky country. The average cost was $6,790 a lab. The cheapest job was $538 in Great Falls and the most expensive was $14,700 near Roundup.
And that doesn't cover the cost of law enforcement's investigation and the cost of prosecuting an offender.
"By far, this is the most expensive drug we've been asked to investigate," said Ken Poteet of Missoula, the state Criminal Investigation Division's regional agent in charge.
Poteet was one of the investigators in the Galpin case that originated in 1999 in Olympia, Wash., where he failed to show up in court to face charges of criminal production of methamphetamine. Authorities later learned he was in western Montana.
"He was staying in several sites and most every place he stayed he would cook," Poteet said.
Poteet alleges that Galpin, who was arrested March 3 in Sanders County, taught a person in Flathead County how to cook meth and was named but not charged in a meth case originating out of the Polson area.
"He was manufacturing throughout Washington and Montana," Poteet alleges.
Galpin currently is being held in Ravalli County jail in lieu of $200,000 bail. He was charged last week with one count of criminal production of dangerous drugs; two counts of criminal possession of precursors to dangerous drugs; criminal possession of dangerous drugs; and criminal endangerment for producing meth in a trailer house inhabited by three children.
The need to replenish federal dollars for meth lab cleanups is underscored in states such as Montana and Idaho, where law enforcement has stepped up enforcement of the deadly drug. The number of meth lab busts in both states has climbed dramatically in the past six years.
In Montana, authorities uncovered 50 labs across the state in 1999 compared with only one in 1996. Long estimates that law enforcement agencies will raid as many as 70 labs this year.
Meth production isn't clustered in one particular area of Montana.
"When I started in narcotics 12 years ago, meth was relatively rare," Long said. "Now, it is all over and it is so addictive."
How much cleanup a meth lab requires depends on many factors, including the stage, type and location of the operation.
"For every pound of meth produced there is five to six pounds of waste," Long said. "Explosive chemicals get tossed aside, sometimes thrown out in the back yard."
If investigators find that evidence waste was flushed down a toilet, a drainfield may be contaminated. If a lab produced toxic gas that was absorbed by the walls, hazardous waste teams sometimes need to pull out drywall.
"There have been cases where the walls in trailers have been so impregnated with chemicals that they have had to saw up metal and haul them away," he said.
In Idaho, authorities uncovered 171 meth labs in 1999, compared with three in 1994. Although meth production in the state may be increasing, Idaho law authorities say the major reason for the escalation in busts is likely because of stepped-up enforcement and increased community awareness.
"Because we are focusing on it, we are discovering it more often," said Ann Thompson, Idaho Department of Law Enforcement's chief information officer.
Idaho law enforcement agencies, school officials, firefighters and social workers are trained to identify signs of meth use or production.
And Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne asked the state law enforcement agency to come up with a plan that specifically combats meth.
"Any use of meth is serious because of the tremendous and lasting damage it does," Thompson said. "Not just to the individual, but there is profound environmental damage of homes, sewer systems and the ground when chemicals are poured out on the dirt."
The Idaho governor last week began lobbying Congress and President Clinton to support additional funding to clean up meth labs.
In a radio address, Kempthorne outlined the dilemma states face and the need for new funding.
"Every time a meth lab is shut down, we're left with a toxic time bomb," he said. "The more labs we put out of business, the more time bombs are left ticking."
Kempthorne and law enforcement personnel in both states have referred to the federal program as a successful partnership among federal, state and local law enforcement.
The federal government provided the funding and the local and state governments provided the manpower to investigate, said Capt. Wayne Longo of the Idaho State Police.
"It was a great partnership," he said.
Longo works the Pandhandle region of Idaho, where authorities uncovered more than half the labs found in the state in 1999.
"The (cleanup) cost is horrendous," Longo said. "It's a public safety nightmare."
Longo speaks two to three times a week to community organizations and schools about the region's methamphetamine problem. Educating the community has proved helpful, he said.
"Citizens are really upset about this," he said. "People are up in arms. They are getting active and forming neighborhood block watches. … That adds to the numbers (of busts)."
Until the DEA receives more money, local communities will have to request funds for hazardous cleanup of meth lab sites from the Environmental Protection Agency, Long said.
Only local governments can tap into the reimbursement program - not state law enforcement, Long said.
"It doesn't blanketly cover every lab," he said. "And it's a reimbursement program, which means communities have to have the money available up front."
Meanwhile, efforts are under way to replenish the federal money, said Debbie Podkowa, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency special agent based in Portland, Ore.
The old policy used to be: "You catch them, you clean them up," Podkowa explained. Then about two years ago about $35 million was allocated for meth lab cleanups nationwide.
"They anticipated that would last 2 1/2 years," she said. "The end came a lot faster than we thought."
Smaller law enforcement agencies that in the past couldn't afford to raid and clean up labs now had an incentive to step up enforcement because money was available. The money was used up in less than two years.
"This was very unexpected," Podkowa said.
National statistics indicate that the number of meth lab raids in the United States jumped from 263 in 1994 to 1,623 in 1998.
Hearings are planned in Washington, D.C., she said, to try to determine future impacts if a federal fund isn't re-established or if the program or some form of it can be resurrected.
"There is a lot of pressure from states like us and governors all over the country to put the funding back," Long said. "In Montana, we're also trying our own avenues to get state funding in the next legislative session."
U.S. Senator Max Baucus, D-Mont., sent a letter last week to Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, urging the committee to provide additional money for meth lab cleanups. He noted Montana is one of only eight states the Office of National Drug Control Policy has identified as having "serious methamphetamine problems."
Meth-related arrests increased 65 percent between 1997 and 1998, Baucus wrote. Baucus is also proposing that Montana be included in the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. Such a designation would make Montana eligible for more federal dollars and additional personnel.
The measure would establish a statewide criminal intelligence network, allowing law enforcement in all 56 counties to share information.
Montana is one of only a few states in the nation currently without this capability, Baucus said.