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Cdn drug lab cleanup remains a threat, says hazmat team

Reporting from a speaker series at the 2012 International Sites and Spills Expo in Toronto
David Nesseth
EcoLog, 11/9/2012 1:44:00 PM

Decommissioning meth and ecstasy labs in Canada is a dangerous business.

The labs are some of the biggest in North America. Whether in a rural farmhouse or a downtown condo, these operations are often filled to the brim with hazardous chemicals.

“After the RCMP locks up the bad guy, we come in. Someone’s got to clean up the garbage,” says Shawn Barton, operations supervisor and lead of Tervita’s Emergency Response teams nationwide.

Barton joined RCMP Cpl. Luc Chicoine and Kent Gardner, training manager for the hazmat division in the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) as part of a speaker series at the 2nd International Sites and Spill Expo in Toronto from November 7 to 8, 2012.

According to Cpl. Chicoine, there are approximately 35 to 40 active meth labs in Canada. They are primarily located in British Columbia (B.C.).      

In October 2012 alone, Canada Border Services Agency seized a record 14 tonnes of precursor chemicals in Prince Rupert, B.C.

Canada ranks as the fifth most prolific producer of methamphetamine in the world. The country can produce more than a quarter-tonne of meth each year. While it has nowhere near the number of drug labs as the U.S., Canada’s are almost always larger-scale operations. Most U.S. labs are small “mom and pop” operations, explained Gardner, who battles meth in Texas.

“Guys can even be cooking when they’re driving,” Gardner said.

In full hazmat gear, the drug lab response team will first do a complete walkthrough of the property to assess the dangers.

“It looks like it snowed in this place,” said Barton, as he showed a picture of a living room covered in some kind of drug dust.

As more and more fentanyl labs crop up, exposure to drugs on scene has become a growing concern for Barton’s team. The synthetic heroin is approximately 100 times more potent than morphine and could easily get into a hazmat tech’s skin, if he or she isn’t vigilant. Even a small dose could be very dangerous, Barton explained.  

Commonly, the hazmat team removes drug lab items that involve corrosive and toxic compressed gases. Flammables and bi- or tri-phasic solutions are also a concern.

If the drug lab is very small, it can often prove to be very dangerous to navigate. Gardner showed pictures from an attic operation where a man lugged enormous chemical vats up a tiny ladder.

“All the hazards, one-tenth of the space,” Gardner said.

After a drug lab is decommissioned there is often an environmental impact to resolve. Drug producers will often dump or bury chemicals off rural roads, leaving them to seep deep into the ground.

“Joe Cook is getting rid of his last batch,” Barton said. “He takes it down the road and gives it a good kick. This can impact earth and water.”

Chicoine told the crowd he’s disappointed with Canada’s attempts to limit access to precursor chemicals used to manufacture drugs like methamphetamine. A typical precursor like ephedrine, which is commonly available off the shelf in Canada as a decongestant, is sold behind-the-counter in the U.S.

“I’m travelling, trying to solve that problem at the chemical level,” said Chicoine, who hopes his lobbying will result in Canada at least matching the U.S. in terms of limiting access to precursors.

In 2003, Canada implemented Precursor Control Regulations (SOR/2002-359) to respond to increasing diversion of precursor chemicals to clandestine labs. The regulatory framework addresses cross-border trafficking of precursor chemicals by requiring a license and a permit for all imports and exports of Class A precursor chemicals.

There are more than 100 different methods to synthesize precursor chemicals in methamphetamine, so it’s always a surprise when a hazmat team responds to a drug lab scene.   

“These things look like a Home Depot or Rona party,” said Barton as he flipped through slides of makeshift meth labs filled with white product pails. 

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