Cleanup of Meth Lab Fires Takes Collaboration

2010 Pierce Velocity 95-foot mid-mount platform with a 2,000-gpm Waterous pump operates at Saddle Brook
This 2010 Pierce Velocity 95-foot mid-mount platform with a 2,000-gpm Waterous pump operates at Saddle Brook (NJ) Fire Department Ladder 3’s first fire. (Photo by Paul Bassett.)

Methamphetamine (meth) labs often make news headlines on discovery by law enforcement or, in some cases, when fires and explosions are caused by the volatile chemicals used to make the drug. There are several ways to manufacture the highly addictive drug, and the chemicals needed to create it can be found in neighborhood drug stores and in standard household cleaning solutions. However commonplace the chemicals, the combined resulting compounds, including solvents, phosphorous, iodine, and metals, often lead to chemical explosions and fires that can pose serious health threats—not only to those involved in meth manufacturing but to anyone who comes in contact with the space in which it’s created, even months later.

The purpose of this article is to provide fire service personnel with an overview of the health and safety issues associated with the cleanup of illicit methamphetamine labs. The article is written from the perspective of an environmental clean-up contractor who has provided hazmat management and support to federal, state, and local agencies at these incidents and is focused on lessons learned.

Risks Beyond Fire

The health risks of meth labs are fairly well known and can include burns and lung damage when personnel are exposed to high concentrations of the associated chemicals for even short periods of time. This short-term/ high-risk exposure is most commonly experienced by law enforcement and fire department personnel on entering a structure where meth is being produced. In addition to health risks, fire department and law enforcement personnel face extreme safety hazards from the potential for meth labs to produce chemical explosions. Not only are the compounds used in meth manufacturing volatile, but because of the most common locations of meth labs, there are often common chemicals stored on-site that also pose significant risks of explosion if reached by meth lab fires.

Basements and sheds often contain gasoline and pesticides, and meth labs located in vans or campers carry an increased explosion risk as the propane or gas stored in and around these vehicles can ignite. To mitigate these health and safety risks and ensure all remnants of the chemicals are treated and disposed of correctly, cleanup companies with a specialty in hazardous waste should be employed at each site. While these companies are typically very experienced in collaborating with local, state, and federal authorities, it’s important to keep best practices in mind for smooth emergency response and full remediation of meth-related hazardous waste.

Coordinating the Cleanup

Environmental cleanup of meth lab sites is typically coordinated through the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) or the respective state environmental agency having jurisdiction. In some instances, the actual cleanup may be contracted out to an environmental cleanup firm with a standing contract with state environmental agencies. Regardless of the players involved, there must be coordination and communication between them.

On coming to an incident site that has been chemically contaminated by meth, environmental management officials and cleanup contractor representatives should immediately meet with the respective DEA or law enforcement officials and members of the local fire department. During typical clandestine lab cleanups, hazmat lab pack and chemical services teams will meet with DEA officials to strategize and evaluate the site-specific risks. However, when an illicit lab has exploded or caught fire, environmental cleanup personnel must also coordinate with the responding fire department to assess and mitigate the risks to fire personnel and the remediation crews created by the fire and any resulting structural damage.

Environmental agency or cleanup contractor personnel should not enter the structure without coordinating with the incident commander to confirm and verify chemical hazards. Sometimes photos taken by fire responders to help familiarize the team with the situation before entering the building can help the cleanup contractor prepare.

Assessing Impact

Next, DEA agents and members of the hazardous waste remediation team enter the building to assess the chemical impacts. Employing chemical and respiratory protection based on the hazards, this combined entry team conducts a series of field screening tests to identify and characterize the residual chemicals and miscellaneous waste containers scattered throughout the site. The teams will collect samples of waste substances found and test them for a variety of characteristics, including pH, ignitability, and reactivity.

Chemical samples and containers typically will be moved to a staging area located in a safe, nearby location, where additional screening and sampling activities may take place. Based on testing results and knowledge of the chemicals used to make methamphetamine, the environmental contractor will then package or containerize the waste and label it accordingly for transportation.

Since drug manufacturing is often in process when amateur meth labs are discovered, many of the chemicals used may be actively “cooking” and reacting. It is the job of environmental agencies and cleanup contractors to stabilize them during the identification process to prevent harm to law enforcement and fire personnel. Additionally, as material safety data sheets are often rendered useless by the disparity in meth lab ingredients, this combined lab team will help calculate what concentration and severity of chemicals exists in the structure to help fire personnel in mitigation.

Following the preliminary removal of hazardous waste from the structure, the combined lab team will then begin the task of segregating each chemical in accordance with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations and specific DEA requirements, including consolidating and bulking like materials. Each waste product will be separated by compatibility, with a detailed inventory completed for each segregated grouping, and then the waste will be packaged into DOT-compliant shippable containers. Often waste will be processed at a temporarary spill containment structure to prevent spills or leaks from impacting the ground surface.

Balancing Multiple Agencies

During the field testing and segregation process, the cleanup contractor must balance the secure disposal expectations and contractual obligations of the EPA and DOT, as well as the DEA. The team must find a middle ground that satisfies requirements, including the identification, coding, manifesting, and disposal regulations of the EPA; packaging, labeling, and transportation regulations of the DOT; and the secure shipment and storage requirements of the DEA. The use of computer-based waste management programs, such as Terralink, can help contractor personnel meet all necessary requirements by generating all required regulatory paperwork on-site.

Final Check

After the chemical waste and containers are removed from the building, the lab team, along with the state environmental protection agency, will enter the structure to search for visual signs of residual contamination. This includes searching each sink, toilet, and bathtub in the facility for evidence of chemicals being poured down the drain and searching for the presence of rust-colored stains on the ceiling from boiling off iodine and stray crystals on the ground that form when hydrochloric acid and rock salt are combined or spilled.

In the event of a fire or explosion, the team may find that the residual chemicals have been burned away. In other cases, residual contamination identified on-site may require additional sampling and specialty laboratory analysis, as well as added decontamination and cleanup activities.

Efficient and safe job completion is largely dependent on open and constant communication between the fire department, law enforcement, DEA, state environmental agencies, and hazardous waste management teams. Fire responders secure the structures and provide counsel on the subsequent safety of damaged buildings, while hazardous-waste professionals secure harmful agents that can affect the health of all area personnel. Ultimately, the health and safety of all teams involved, as well as surrounding residents, are the overarching goals of meth lab cleanup and can be achieved through interagency teamwork.

ROBERT M. PELLETIER is the chemical services manager and senior field chemist at ENPRO Services. He has more than eleven years of experience in the environmental field. His work at ENPRO involves the handling of numerous waste streams generated from various sites and generators and developing hazardous waste disposal systems, processes, and protocols. He has been with ENPRO since 2005.

GEOFFREY A. BROWN, Ph.D., is a vice president at ENPRO Services. He specializes in the assessment and remediation of complex oil and hazardous material release sites. He has more than 20 years of experience in the environmental field, with both environmental consulting/contracting firms and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. He has been with ENPRO since 1998.

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