Our recent report on the growing threat of illegal methamphetamine laboratories across Louisiana ("Speed Zones," Oct. 23, 2001) included some ominous news: illegal meth makers and users risk blowing up vehicles and apartment complexes with deadly chemicals, and endanger the public by illegally dumping hazardous waste or by stealing chemicals.
To shut down these reckless criminals, we propose the formation of an unlikely coalition led by two arch-foes: environmentalists and the chemical industry. Rounding out the rest of the coalition would be battered women's shelters and social workers, along with other children's advocates -- groups that are well aware of the long history of domestic violence associated with methamphetamine abuse.
These unlikely allies could provide key support to state and federal law enforcement and environmental regulators who are already over-taxed by national security alerts.
"I think it's an excellent idea; it'd be a wonderful initiative," says Robert Baggs, one of two assistant special agents in charge at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Louisiana. "No good comes from these clandestine laboratories -- not the drugs they produce nor the hazards they create."
Salvadore Perricone, chief of the narcotics unit for the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans, underscores the risks of meth. "When you are talking about meth labs, you are dealing with lithium, ether, anhydrous ammonia -- a whole host of chemicals that are inherently dangerous. ... When the DEA or the local sheriffs go into a house with a meth lab, they go in like they are dealing with anthrax."
DEA agents estimate that it costs anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 for hazardous materials experts to clean up a single meth lab. And each lab produces up to 6 pounds of toxic waste.
Police and fire officials in New Orleans say they have no reports of meth-related fires, explosions or biohazards in the area. But DEA agents recently shut down a Terrytown meth lab; the operator was a fugitive from California whose lab had blown up an apartment complex in that state. Meanwhile, Louisiana State Police are on the look-out for meth makers transporting their toxic wares on I-10 and I-20 -- the major transportation arteries for hard drugs in Louisiana.
"There have been cases of people in other states having a lab in a trunk of a car or other vehicle on the highway," says State Police spokesperson Sgt. William Davis. "You can imagine the chemicals that are involved and what could happen in the event of an accident."
Environmentalists here say law enforcement is not exaggerating the multiple threats posed by meth labs. "Unfortunately, some folks that are making the illegal drugs are also partaking of the illegal drugs and things get crazy," says Darryl Malek-Wiley, chair of the New Orleans Group Sierra Club.
Often at odds with the chemical industry over its own environmental record, Malek-Wiley concurs with the industry's assessment of the dangers of meth labs and anhydrous ammonia -- a key ingredient -- in the hands of speed freaks. He adds that toxic by-products of meth-making are not just illegally made, but illegally dumped. This is one of those rare issues that puts the Sierra Club alongside the chemical industry.
Unfortunately, other environmental groups do not see meth labs as a call to the barricades. "On the list of priorities, it's not much by Louisiana standards where our environmental problems deal in millions of pounds per year," says Gary Miller, chemical engineer with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN).
We think LEAN should reconsider. In recent months, people have warmed to the idea of putting aside traditional differences for a common cause. Environmentalists and industry do not have to hold hands -- just join forces -- to help law enforcement stop a problem that DEA agents say will soon be an epidemic in the suburban neighborhoods of south Louisiana.
Louisiana Ammonia Producers, a group of seven companies (including Cytec Industries in Jefferson Parish) that accounts for 40 percent of the U.S. production of ammonia, have taken an aggressive role to address the new bio-threat to rural and suburban areas alike. Among other initiatives, ammonia producers are showing farmers and other customers how to better secure their supplies.
It's a needed lesson: Last October, more than 200 residents of the rural farming town of Bonita, near Monroe, were evacuated after thieves left open a valve on an anhydrous ammonia tank, resulting in the formation of a deadly chemical plume. No one was hurt. State Police say the theft was meth-related. "Speed thieves" often fail to use proper containers when siphoning the chemical from legal storage tanks -- or they leave open valves.
The danger to our community is real. In this time of heightened awareness to threats, here are the warning signs for meth labs: If you see a lot of people coming and going from a house with blackened or foil-covered windows, if you notice excessive trash such as lanterns and anti-freeze cans, or if you detect a strong odor of ammonia or a smell like cat urine, call police or your local fire department.
You may be saving the environment -- or even a life.