WASHINGTON — Illegal meth labs have become scarcer and their federally funded cleanups cheaper, a report shows.
Since 2006, when Congress passed an anti-methamphetamine measure, the number of meth lab cleanups nationwide "has decreased significantly," auditors with the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General found.
Investigators attribute the decline to the law that made it harder to buy key chemicals used in illicit drug production.
That's the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, which imposed significant restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine to methamphetamine manufacturers, auditors noted.
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The report doesn't say if meth use has declined in the United States.
In recent years, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime noted late last month, meth production "was displaced over the border to Mexico." The amount of methamphetamine seized near the U.S.-Mexico border nearly doubled from 2007 to 2009, the annual U.N. drug report stated.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration funded the cleanup of a record 11,790 methamphetamine labs in fiscal 2005. By fiscal 2008, the most recent year for which figures are available, the DEA funded the cleanup of 3,866 labs.
Contract improvements and other revisions cut the average cost per lab cleanup from $3,600 in fiscal 2007 to $2,200 in fiscal 2009, auditors noted approvingly.
California, which in 1999 was dubbed a "source country" for its ample meth production, particularly in the remote rural stretches of the Central Valley, had just 13 meth labs cleaned up by the DEA in fiscal 2008, the audit notes. Though state authorities cleaned up additional labs not counted by the DEA, law enforcement officers generally like the overall trend.
The anti-meth law, signed by President George W. Bush in March 2006, limits the amount of pseudoephedrine that can be sold, moves products containing it behind the pharmacy counter and imposes record-keeping requirements.
Domestic drug gangs now resort to "smurfing," which involves frequently buying medicines in quantities small enough to avoid normal restrictions.
"They'll go into a homeless shelter and get a dozen people and then bring them to every pharmacy in the county to buy cold medicine blister packs," Bill Ruzzamenti, director of the Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said Tuesday. The agency helps coordinate state, local and federal anti-drug efforts in the region.
The illicit labs, in turn, produce toxic waste along with the methamphetamine. The byproducts can burn, explode and corrode; they can sicken law enforcement officers cleaning up the labs and seep into groundwater.
In fiscal 2008, the DEA spent about $16.6 million on drug lab cleanups, including 190 labs in Florida, 175 in Texas, 161 in North Carolina and 50 labs in Missouri, among others.
States spend additional money for their own cleanups.
"Missouri is one of several states that uses state funds for most of its drug laboratory cleanups, and only requests the DEA's assistance for large cleanups," auditors noted.
The auditors cautioned that problems still hinder the DEA lab cleanup program. In some cases, private contractors didn't provide the paperwork proving proper disposal of the dangerous lab chemicals.
Also, an unnamed hazardous waste disposal company responsible for lab cleanups in Western states had to be dropped several years ago "after serious disclosures about the company's president were revealed during a routine background investigation," auditors noted.
In their formal response, DEA officials largely agreed with the auditors' recommendations and pointed to improvements that have been made.
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at (202) 383-0006 or firstname.lastname@example.org.