AUGUSTA, Maine — The national problem of homemade drug labs, mostly making methamphetamine, is growing in Maine and its cost is hitting law enforcement at all levels of government, including the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“It is very much a concern,” said Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. “This has been a big problem in other areas of the country and we have seen a significant increase in Maine over the last several months.”
In budget year 2011, MDEA had six calls to deal with meth labs in the state. Since November 2011 the agency has tallied 14 drug labs with all but one involving the making of methamphetamine. One lab was making a synthetic version of the powerful psychedelic drug dimethyltryptamine.
Five of the labs this year were in Aroostook County: two in Presque Isle, one in Easton, one in Van Buren and one in Connor.
“These homemade labs are very dangerous,” McKinney said. “They use chemicals that when mixed together can cause toxic gas and the process creates heat that can cause fire and explosions.”
He said there have been several instances where the container used to mix the chemicals, often a 2-liter soda bottle, develops a hole from the heat of the chemical reaction and causes a fire.
“We had one where it looked like a flame thrower with flames shooting out the side of it,” McKinney said. “These are dangerous situations.”
He said MDEA has developed an online training program to help local law enforcement recognize potential labs. He said agents are sent immediately when a call comes from local police that they have a possible lab.
“We have trained agents to identify the chemicals and the equipment that might be used,” McKinney said.
He said responding to a report of a drug lab has become one of the highest priorities for his agency because of the danger posed to the general public by the labs. He said a big concern is the cost of responding to a possible lab.
“We had one on a weekend and everybody was on overtime,” McKinney said. “We were using a federal grant to pay for dealing with labs, but that grant ran out on Christmas Day and we are scrambling to find ways to pay for these now.”
The department still has state funds for this work, but the concern is that this money will be exhausted if the number of labs continues to grow.
Public Safety Commissioner John Morris warned lawmakers earlier this year of the growing bills for meth lab investigations. He said the costs are significant and growing.
“Every time we break a meth lab it costs $15,000,” he said, “because of the care we have to take and the hazmat that we have to send in.”
He said the chemicals used to make meth and other designer drugs are very dangerous, some toxic and others explosive. He said it is a growing cost as drug labs have been raided across the state and his costs do not include the expenses of local police and other first responders.
“We often have a fire department standing by at one of these incidents,” McKinney said, “because there is a real danger from even these simple labs we have found so far.”
Barbara Parker, director of response services at the Department of Environmental Protection, said her agency also is facing increased costs because of meth and other drug labs. She said her hazmat teams are trained to deal with a range of toxic and dangerous chemicals, including those used to make illegal drugs.
“Our biggest cost is manpower,” she said. “We send at least two people to every one of these and it can take a long time to assess the situation and clean up the lab site so the police can do their job.”
Parker said there is also a cost for such items as oxygen bottles and disposable suits that vary based on the incident. She said it can cost just a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars for the DEP to do its job at a drug lab site.
“We have been lucky that all of these labs have been small,” she said, “In Washington state they had a railroad car buried in the ground that was being used as a big lab.”
Parker also is concerned about the increasing number of labs and the costs to her division. The response services are funded by a dedicated tax on those Maine companies that produce hazardous materials and she said handling meth labs set up by criminals was not a consideration when the fund was set up.