Toxic Shock

Starting a meth lab takes little skill or cash. The cleanup is another story.

"Why did we ever think this would go away?" she asks. "You don't need to go to the border. You walk to your corner store, you steal everything you need to manufacture it off the shelves, and you go home and cook it. When it's that easy, why would it go away?"

Since taking command of the task force three years ago, Moriarty has become one of the most vocal anti-meth warriors in the state, inveighing against the labs and the hazards they present. She's pushed for tighter controls on the supplies used to make meth, stricter cleanup standards and tougher penalties for cooks who put children at risk of chemical contamination. Prompted by Goin and others, she's also required supervisors as well as field officers to undergo training on exposure issues and the use of protective equipment; cumbersome chemical suits and respirators are now standard gear for the task force on every lab entry.

"What scares me the most are the unknowns," Moriarty says. "As a commander, I want to know twenty years from now that none of my guys are dying of cancer or liver disease because I did a terrible job of protecting them."

The meth-and-acid spill above was found by North 
Metro during a hotel raid -- and the electrical wire 
snaking through the spill was plugged in when officers 
arrived.
The meth-and-acid spill above was found by North Metro during a hotel raid -- and the electrical wire snaking through the spill was plugged in when officers arrived.
You’re soaking in it: Lab raiders are well suited for 
most cleanup jobs.
You’re soaking in it: Lab raiders are well suited for most cleanup jobs.

While other police departments have adopted similar measures, North Metro has a reputation for being exceptionally safety-minded. They've had plenty of opportunities to use their training; the task force, which investigates drug cases in eight north-metro-area jurisdictions, has been a leader in uncovering labs over the past six years, outpacing even Denver. Statewide, the number of labs raided soared during that period: 31 in 1998, 150 in 1999, 264 in 2000, 452 in 2001.

More recent figures, though, show the lab busts leveling off. In 2002, law-enforcement officials across Colorado shut down just sixteen more labs than they had the year before; right now, agencies in the Denver area are finding about the same number of labs, or fewer, than they did last year (although a surge of raids in Colorado Springs may yet produce another record year). But Moriarty and her colleagues say the numbers only show that resources are being "maxed out" by the never-ending battle.

"A dropoff today means absolutely nothing," says Jim Gerhardt, a former member of North Metro who now serves as the clandestine-lab coordinator for the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal task force. "It could skyrocket tomorrow. I guarantee you that every task force has more intelligence about labs than the physical ability to go after them."

Using the kind of hyperbolic math that is frequently employed in reports on the drug war, federal officials have estimated that only one in ten meth labs is ever detected. Despite the unprovable nature of such an assertion, the prospect of thousands of labs operating in Colorado has spurred legislators to take action, enacting a series of new laws designed to give cops more muscle in the fight. One measure allows investigators to file child-abuse charges against parents who expose their children to lab operations. Another makes it easier to arrest suspected operators who may not actually have cooked any meth, based simply on the presence of "precursor" ingredients, lab equipment and the intent to manufacture.

The escalating war on meth has also received prominent play in the local media, which has been eager to educate the public on the dangers of "death bags" -- trash bags or plastic containers that contain deadly vapors, such as phosphine gas, produced during the cook -- and other atrocities. Conveniently, on the same day that the Colorado Senate approved the drug-endangered-children bill last March, North Metro discovered a meth lab in an Adams County home, arrested two adults and took an eight-year-old girl into protective custody. Lab busts involving children tend to draw plenty of ink and cameras.

Despite the scary statistics and the hype, not everyone has joined the bandwagon. Owners of rental properties and apartments question the current push for onerous cleanup standards and have opposed efforts to require disclosure of past meth-lab activity if a property is put up for sale. Police believe that motel operators aren't reporting every suspected meth lab on their premises, out of fear of crushing cleanup costs and lost revenues -- even though such tactics could result in lawsuits from subsequent customers who may unwittingly spend their vacation in a still-toxic den. Even some of the meth warriors on the front lines have begun to question the kinds of burdens associated with aggressive enforcement and long-term cleanup costs.

"We are probably assuming a lot more liability and responsibility than we need to, quite frankly," says Glenn Grove, team coordinator for the Adams and Jefferson County Hazardous Response Authority. "If this is a problem that society recognizes, it's going to come with a bill."

A former Jeffco sheriff's deputy and bomb expert who now spends all his time on haz-mat issues, Grove recognizes that meth labs are dangerous environments, but he is wary of classifying them as hazardous-waste dumps. He praises Moriarty and other police commanders for taking steps to protect officers who have to work in such places; at the same time, he also sees mounting social costs and strained budgets arising from the new laws and strict cleanup policies.

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