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Federal Money For Meth Lab Cleanups Runs Out

Meth labs are dangerous places. They're often filled with highly flammable liquids and gases that can burn skin, irritate lungs and even explode. For many years the federal government has paid to clean up these places and make sure they're safe. But a couple weeks ago the money ran out. Now many cash-strapped states and local municipalities are footing the bill. This neighborhood on the South Carolina side of Lake Wylie is quiet and pretty idyllic. But about a year ago there was a meth lab bust. Neighbors were shocked to hear meth was being cooked up here. They were worried they were so close to drug dealing, but also that they were so close to the nasty and combustible materials that go into making meth. "Apparently there's a lot of side effects from what they use to make the meth and they didn't know where they were dumping it," says a resident. "They have a suspicion it was being dumped in the lake. But we all had our well water tested too to make sure it wasn't going into the groundwater." She doesn't want to give her name. The home has been cleaned up, but the incident is still fresh on her mind. The drug dealers scared her. She has no idea what she would've done if the house was just left to fester as a hazardous waste dump. Additional Info: Quotes & Stats Click here for sidebar "There's no leaving it there. If it's a health hazard which I assume with chemicals like that it would be, then it needs to be cleaned up. . . Period. . . No question about it." But the question now is: if the federal government won't pay for these clean-ups, who will? In North Carolina, the state has stepped up and paid for what the SBI's director considers a stopgap measure. But in South Carolina that's not the case, at least at this point. Here's Thom Berry, the spokesman for the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control. "What we find ourselves in the position is much of the same as the municipalities and the counties. We don't have the staff. We don't have the funding. We don't have the program to do this," says Berry. So that leaves it to counties and local municipalities to foot the bill. The cost to clean up a lab fluctuates, but a $3,000 bill is common. Ashley Harris helps manage meth lab clean ups for the Spartanburg County Sheriff's Department. Two weeks ago he found out the Drug Enforcement Administration would no longer be paying for clean ups. "I got a call from our DEA rep saying, 'Hey, I just kind-of want to let you know what's coming down the pipe. Today it's done. There's no money for meth lab clean-ups.' And the ironic thing is I was actually on my way to a meth lab when I got that call," says Harris. So what happened to the federal money? It's complicated. Up until last year, the DEA was getting $20 million a year for meth lab clean ups. But meth lab busts fluctuate and some years there was money to spare. Going into 2010, Congress saw there was $11 million carried over from the year before. So lawmakers thought another $10 million would do it. And it did. Almost all of the $21 million was used. But going into this year, the program was nearly out of money. The federal government has been operating on a series of continuing resolutions which means the program is still running on what was allocated last year. That's about $10 million. Meanwhile the number of meth lab busts has gone up, says the DEA's Chief Financial Officer Frank Kalder "We've been under a continuing resolution for about 4/10ths of a year, so we have roughly 4/10ths of $10 million, $4.3 million to be exact. This year we have spent that $4.3 million," explains Kalder. In 2010, 235 labs were found in North Carolina. In South Carolina, that number was about 275. Over the past two weeks, Spartanburg County has had to pay for a couple meth lab clean ups. Harris of the local Sheriff's office says they really don't have a choice. "We've taken an oath to do our best to keep this county safe and to stop crime," says Harris. "If that means we're going to have find some money from somewhere to clean this up to get this off the street, because once these chemicals are mixed all of a sudden they become nasty, we have to do what we have to do." For now some South Carolina counties are turning to money seized from drug busts to pay the bill. But that money is unpredictable, kind of like what's happening with Congress right now.