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Cash woes vex meth-lab cleanup

Rural agencies could soon be short of funds

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In March the Drug Enforcement Agency ran out of money designed to assist small police agencies that stumble across methamphetamine labs but can't afford cleanup costs.

Then in May the Department of Justice, in response to public outcry, received $5 million in emergency cleanup funding local agencies can access on a first-come, first-served basis.

While the windfall has solved the problem for the moment, DEA resident-agent-in-charge Don Mendrala said he can't predict how long the cash will last.

"When the money is gone the problem resurfaces," he said.

Most federal budget analysts expect the emergency money will be gone before year's end, a press release from U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., stated.

Typical cleanup costs for a Utah meth lab range from $1,000

to $5,000, Mendrala said. So-called "super labs," so far found only in California, can carry disposal price tags reaching six figures.

Mendrala said an empty DEA bank account presents a potentially dangerous situation for rural police agencies that don't budget for meth lab disposal.

"The danger is having a lab discovered completely inadvertently," he said. "If a local police officer finds a lab during a car stop or a fire or a domestic dispute, these types of discoveries would fall outside of our legal ability to pay for their cleanup."

Most times Utah's rural police work with special countywide meth task forces, which include DEA agents. DEA involvement ensures the federal agency will pay for the bust's cleanup. Such cases are assigned a DEA case number and automatically receive funding from the Department of Justice, Mendrala said.

But in cases where rural agencies stumble across labs without DEA involvement, federal money is not guaranteed, Mendrala said.

Still, since the agency has the know-how and manpower needed to scour toxic labs, they receive special cleanup funds slated for busts lacking a DEA case number. It was these dollars that expired in March and could disappear again when the emergency funding runs out, Mendrala said.

For rural agencies the result could be dangerous.

"We just can't afford to fund or budget for cleaning up meth labs," Emery County Sheriff Lamar Guymon said. "For us it would be a waste of money. We leave it to the DEA people who specialize in that stuff."

In Washington County, with a much larger population than rural Emery, Sheriff Kirk Smith is similarly unable to budget for the high price of destroying potentially lethal and explosive chemicals used to manufacture meth.

"Normally your budgets are not sufficient to cover the cost of cleaning these labs," Smith said. "We just don't have the monies that some of the Wasatch Front agencies have, so the DEA help is really important to us."

In an effort to prevent future budget shortfalls, Hutchinson has introduced a bill that would earmark $10 million for rural agencies needing DEA assistance for fiscal year 2000. The bill would allocate $20 million for rural cleanup efforts in 2001. Hutchinson's bill is under review by the House Subcommittee on Crime.

E-MAIL: bsnyder@desnews.com