Valdosta, GA -- May 18, 2011 --
Two weeks ago, drug agents busted a meth lab at 1207 Gornto Road in Valdosta
VPD Officer Brian Childress said, "As they went in, a haze of chemicals. When they walked in, it's almost like you could cut it."
The suspects, Christopher Copeland, Stephen Smith and Tyler Stokes, are charged with cooking and selling methamphetamine. They contaminated the entire house.
"If there had been a match in there, it would immediately blow up something," added Childress.
Nine hours later, investigators, firefighters and EMS crews were still cleaning up toxic leftovers.
"Some of these meth labs can cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars," explained Childress. "But imagine taking that kind of hit on a city budget every year."
City budgets are hurting now that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has cut funding for lab cleanup. With no wiggle room in their coffers, communities across the country will have to find a way to make up the difference. It's leaving them fearing cutbacks and layoffs.
In just Lowndes County and Valdosta alone, drug agents disposed of 21 meth labs last year costing law enforcement $75,000, according to VPD and LCSO.
"Now the taxpayers, it's gonna fall on their backs to clean this stuff up," said Mike Sellars, a drug agent with Lowndes County's Narcotic's Unit.
Sellars added, "It's something the department will have to go to the commissioners to try to raise the budget to cover this type of burden. It's something that has to be paid for."
When Sellars busts meth labs, it requires six to 12 investigators and can take up to 10 hours to process, collect samples, remove and dispose of a meth lab's hazardous chemicals.
Drug agents pack all their equipment into a response truck, that's paid for with a Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI) grant. Items like air tanks and masks are also paid for by the GBI. But those items are a fraction of the estimated $3,200 it takes to decontaminate a lab, according to the DEA. The rest LCSO will have to figure out how to pay.
In a statement from the DEA, officials said funds for meth lab cleanup had dried up and that they "...do not anticipate additional Congressional funding for the continuation of this program. Any future funding decisions rest with the United States Congress."
U.S Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) , said in an interview, "We're all struggling for dollars right now. And I think what's important for us is sto try to find the balance of how can the dollars on the federal level support the local efforts and be done effectively."
Meth busts regularly make headlines on WCTV. Just two months ago in Lanier County, deputies say George Wright, 42, was cooking meth in his daughter's home at 85 John A Gaskins Road. It suddenly exploded in his face and he caught fire.
"My kid was in there. It could have killed her or me," said Maeghan Wright, George's daughter. It's bad to say but it's not my dad . Like it's completely taken over him."
Last summer in Lowndes County, Roy Bell, 39. was arrested, accused of making meth with his girlfriend at their Sims Grove Road Trailer.
"I'm very concerned cause it's close to our home," said Nakeisha Jefferson, who lives nearby. "And they can drop something and my kids can pick it up. not know what it is."
And back at 1207 Gornto Road, VPD's most recent meth case, neighbors are still stunned.
"I was so surprised that this could happen on a main street in such a good neighborhood," said Cole Wilson, 19.
Countless meth labs are cooking now behind closed doors. How will area counties pay for these cleanups? That remains to be seen.