Umatilla County is turning into a hazardous waste dump and you may not even know it.
While the county has one of the worst methamphetamine problems in the state, as well as the nation, many of the labs where this toxic drug are cooked are being seized and disposed of by law enforcement and the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team.
But despite the fact that labs have been cleaned up properly by specialized cleanup crews, hundreds of pounds of waste still manage to seep into rivers, creeks, soils, carpets and walls in the form of hazardous chemicals used to manufacture meth.
"For every pound of meth cooked up, there's five to six pounds in waste in the solids, liquids and gas forms left behind," said Rob Bovett, legal counsel to the Oregon Narcotics Enforcement Association and a member of the Governor's Meth Task Force.
"These cooks are paranoid, and rightly so, because they don't want to dump it in their own garbage because they don't want to get caught," Bovett continued. "So they instead dump it elsewhere."
"Elsewhere" includes near river beds, in rivers and creeks, along side a road and behind garbage bins, and sometimes just left inside a residence or abandoned home.
Just this week, narcotics detectives found two meth labs in camper trailers in Southwest Pendleton.
The chemicals used to make meth can be safe when used alone and correctly, Bovett said, but if mixed together or heated up, they can become deadly.
"They're boiling and mixing things that can be used safely, but become toxic when boiled or mixed together," Bovett said. "They can explode."
While many now know that pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient used in some popular cold remedies, is a key ingredient in cooking meth - thanks to a state law that now puts those medicines behind pharmacy counters to deter their theft by meth cooks - there are numerous other common products used to cook the drug.
One of the more commonly-used ingredients in meth found in Eastern Oregon is anhydrous ammonia, a chemical fertilizer used by farmers in the area. Other ingredients include battery acid - often found in lithium batteries - which causes corrosion, eating away at everything it touches. There's also lye, commonly known as drain cleaner, and extreme solvents such as acetone.
Det. Rick Jackson, a certified lab site safety officer with the Pendleton Police Department and the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team, said that lab dump sites are often found near waterways, like streams and the Umatilla River, because the cooks will rinse out their jars and other utensils used to cook the drug in the water.
"We especially see these during salmon and steelhead fishing seasons," Jackson said of the dump sites. "We'll get calls from fishermen saying they've found something."
The most important thing to remember when stumbling upon a meth lab or dump site, officials say, is to not touch anything. If there's a propane tank with the valves stained blue (the tanks are used to put anhydrous ammonia in and that stains the valves), don't go near it because it can explode.
"You don't know what's in it, you don't know if chemicals have already been mixed," Jackson said. "You just don't know. It's better, and safer, to just call us."
Studies have not yet been done on the effects of the chemicals left behind from cooking meth have on animals and fish near the rivers where dump sites are often found. But Wildlife Biologist Greg Rimbach, with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Umatilla District, doesn't think the chemicals would have too much of an effect on the wildlife.
"I would suspect that animals like deer would be more adverse to coming close to a box lab left behind," Rimbach said. "They have that sense that sort of tells them not to go near it."
Rimbach said if large amounts of chemicals were dumped into the river and were not diluted enough, they could end up killing fish.
"But it's not like the cooks are dumping 50-gallon drums of anhydrous in the river," Rimbach added. "It would be an expensive proposition to study."
Cleaning up a meth lab is a long, extensive and expensive process. When a lab is found or seized by police, at least two certified lab site safety officers must stay on the scene until a cleanup crew contracted by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality arrives, Jackson said.
Lab site safety officers must enter the lab site and assess it, determining just how hazardous the site is and the chemicals used. They'll separate those chemicals, Jackson said, photographing and taking samples of them for evidence. This is a big hit to landowners, who must pay for this assessment and cleanup, which can cost a minimum of about $7,000 to $10,000.
"Sometimes, it's just more inexpensive to plow the place down," Jackson said.
It's important to have these places certifiably clean, Bovett said, because meth "sticks to everything," including inside walls and in carpet inside a home. Sometimes, he said, property owners don't know that the previous tenants cooked meth in the residence, and then will allow a new tenant to occupy the home, potentially causing a health hazard.
"The site is literally a mini hazardous waste site," Bovett said. "These chemicals can cause lung damage, burn the skin and cause respiratory problems."