Whether it's in a car, a trailer or a house, cleaning up after a methamphetamine lab can be nasty business.
Some of the ingredients in a meth operation can burn skin, freeze lungs and ignite fires that spew dangerous gases.
That's why, when there's a meth mess to clean up, folks are called in who wear protective white suits, gloves, steel-toed boots and, in some cases, respirators.
In Montana and Wyoming, the guys in charge of breaking down meth labs work for a company called EnviroSolve, based in Tulsa, Okla. The company has a contract with the Drug Enforcement Administration to clean up hazardous waste at clandestine drug labs.
"We get the big chunks and any chemicals we find," Jim Fehrle, EnviroSolve's general counsel, said in a telephone interview. "It's our responsibility to remove all of the items that could still be used to make illegal drugs. It's not our responsibility as a law enforcement contractor to remediate the property so it's habitable again."
Although the company's subcontractors have cleaned up more than 100 meth labs in Montana since getting the contract in October 2002, none of the work is performed by a Montana company.
A Wyoming subcontractor dismantles labs in Eastern Montana and portions of Wyoming, while a Washington-based company handles Western Montana, northern Idaho and eastern Washington.
"They could travel as much as 400 miles one way to get to a lab in a remote area," Fehrle said. "Montana is a big state."
Fehrle said his company has been asked by DEA not to disclose the names or specific locations of their subcontractors out of concern that meth users or dealers might decide to break into storage areas.
"We don't want to let people, particularly the bad guys, know where these materials are being taken or stored after they're removed," he said. "We just don't want to invite problems."
EnviroSolve is one of a handful of companies in the United States that have a contract with the DEA to clean up illegal drug labs. Although the contract extends to manufacturing labs for LSD, PCP and other illicit drugs, Fehrle said they are "few and far between" and meth labs are the main business.
Business has been brisk. In just over a year, the company has been called in to clean up 116 labs in Montana and 31 in Wyoming.
The proliferation of meth labs isn't just happening in lower-income neighborhoods, as some believe.
"It's all over the place," Fehrle said. "We also get them in campgrounds, forests out in the middle of nowhere and in very affluent neighborhoods, where there are $300,000 or $400,000 homes. So it's not unique to one particular class of person."
The labs also crop up in different forms, including large, permanent operations in houses and smaller mobile labs that can fit into the trunk of a car.
"There's no two that are alike," he said.
No matter where the labs show up, the subcontractors working for EnviroSolve are ready to move quickly.
When the call comes in that a meth lab has been found, the company has to respond within 15 minutes and be on the road within an hour. More often than not, that means disrupting sleep because, as Fehrle points out, most of their calls come between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.
"There is a sense of urgency," he said. "Once they've discovered a lab, they can't leave it and they want it cleaned up as soon as possible."
Arriving at a site, cleanup crews follow a strict protocol.
Top priorities are creating a health and safety plan and taking steps not to compromise any law-enforcement investigation at the site.
Most meth cooks probably don't invest in too much protective equipment, but the cleanup crews are careful about what they wear and what they're exposed to. The standard outfit includes protective coveralls, boots, gloves and eyewear.
"And if it's in a confined space, say in a house, it may be necessary to use some kind of respiratory equipment," he said. "They always have that with them."
As the lab is taken apart, chemicals are brought outside and categorized. Often, they've been stored in soda bottles, old gasoline cans, jars and other common containers.
"It's rare that the chemicals are in their original containers," Fehrle said.
Sometimes chemicals can be readily identified. Other times, portable testing kits are used to determine what they are. The chemicals are then separated and grouped so that, for example, the ignitable ingredients in one area and the corrosive ones in another.
Some of the ingredients have to be dealt with immediately. Red phosphorus, an ingredient sometimes obtained by scraping matchbooks, can be particularly dangerous.
"Sometimes you can get a flash fire just from sheer friction," Fehrle said.
Crews will often just wet down any sign of red phosphorus to reduce the risk of fire. Other chemicals, such as anhydrous ammonia, which is potentially deadly if inhaled, are poured into water.
The initial separation of chemicals outside the lab helps to determine how and where the chemicals will be shipped.
Similar chemicals are packaged together in containers that range from steel drums to five-gallon buckets. Each is enclosed to meet strict federal specifications, including an inventory of contents and labels on the outside of each container that say what's inside and where it came from.
Before the chemicals are trucked away, crews have about an hour's worth of paperwork and an obligation to break up any of the lab equipment that might be used later.
"We're supposed to render all of that unusable," Fehrle said. "So we break it all up right there, pack it up and take it with us."
On average, Fehrle said, it takes about two or three hours to take down a meth lab and costs about $2,500, although some operations take days and are more expensive.
EnviroSolve's cleanup doesn't necessarily mean that a house is free from dangerous chemicals, because their DEA contract only deals with dismantling the lab and carting away the substances.
"There could be and oftentimes is some contamination left on walls and counter tops and in the carpet and drapes that we don't take with us," Fehrle said. "That's a local health department issue or a local property owner issue."
The chemicals and defunct lab equipment are taken back to the subcontractor's headquarters, where it's a secured until a courier from EnviroSolve arrives and trucks it back to Tulsa.
Again, the chemicals are sorted, categorized and stored with similar items recovered from meth labs elsewhere in the country. The chemicals are then shipped off. Some are neutralized, some are burned in hazardous-waste incinerators, some are dumped into landfills and some, especially the flammable liquids and solids, are sent to cement factories where they are used as fuel.
"It's a form of recycling," Fehrle said.
Cleaning up after a meth lab isn't the most glamorous of occupations, Fehrle said, but there is an element of excitement. There are times when crews are there when the lab operators are arrested as they come home unexpectedly or are found lurking nearby.
"It's an unusual business to be in," Fehrle said. "But somebody's got to do it."