PENDLETON - U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and officials from the Office of National Drug Control Policy heard just how bad the drug problem is in Umatilla and Morrow counties when they met Tuesday afternoon with some of the people involved in the battle.
"I'm here because Congressman Walden is respected, and frankly, he's been putting a lot of pressure on us," said Scott Burns, deputy director of state and local affairs for the ONDCP. "I'm here to help you try and solve the problems you're having."
Walden said this is his 22nd visit to Umatilla County in five and a half years, and the third this year, and he "can't think of a bigger problem" in the area than drugs.
"The area is the center of drug production and trafficking," said Det. Mark Miller of the Morrow County Sheriff's Office, a member the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team. "We know the problem is increasing - the number of labs alone will tell you that. Those amounts scream that (drugs are) going out of the area."
Umatilla County has applied for a federal High Intensity Drug Traffic Area designation for the last four years but has been rejected each time. The most recent rejection June 29 claimed the county is not "a center of illegal drug production, manufacturing, importation or distribution" and that "drug-related activities in the area are (not) having harmful impacts in other areas of the country."
But Miller pointed to Umatilla County's busy freeways, which connect with drug pathways to Washington, Idaho, California, Mexico and Canada. Drug traffickers use Interstates 82 and 84, and several state highways in the region to transport drugs, as well as airports in Pendleton, Hermiston and in the Tri-Cities.
"Marijuana is not grown for a local market only," Miller said, noting that the 40,000 pounds of pot seized by BENT in 2002 would mean a half-pound for each of Umatilla County's 70,000 people. "That's preposterous; that dope wasn't staying around here."
While marijuana is a problem, the drug of choice locally is methamphetamine. Last year, Umatilla County ranked third in the state in meth lab seizures with 61. This year, with five months left, the county is ranked second with 57 labs to date, including one found in Echo Tuesday afternoon.
Only Multnomah County, with more than 650,000 residents, has had more seizures this year, with 85.
"Rural law enforcement agencies don't have the same resources," Miller said. "BENT has continued to lobby for federal assistance because it doesn't have any right now."
BENT has seven full-time officers and detectives and one full-time Oregon National Guardsman on its team. The team is made up of two officers from Oregon State Police and one each from Pendleton, Milton-Freewater Police and Umatilla Tribal police, and the Umatilla and Morrow county sheriff's offices.
"It's a very, very serious problem we have here," Walden said. "The problem, I think, is when you get out into these rural areas, because it's harder to fund (the task forces and law enforcement)."
Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts said BENT receives just $110,000 to cover seven counties out of the $6 million the government gives the state through the federal Burn Grant, and noted that one of those counties alone - Malheur County - is larger than seven states.
Miller said BENT funding is quickly running dry, and if assistance from the feds doesn't come soon it could be "out of business within three to four years."
Umatilla County Sheriff John Trumbo noted the county's drug problem isn't the only pressing issue - there's also the domino effect from drug use and production.
Trumbo talked of children neglected and affected by their meth-making and using parents, and of farmers who are continuously the victims of theft of anhydrous ammonia, a key ingredient in the manufacture of meth, as well as stores that commonly have meth-making items like pseudoephedrine stolen.
Burns told BENT and other law officers Tuesday that he will do his best to help Umatilla and Morrow counties get federal assistance.
"I will commit to you that I will work with Congressman Walden and I will sit down with the director (of ONDCP) and with Chuck (Carl, director of Oregon HIDTA) to discuss this problem," Burns said. "You need help. The question is from whom and how and when.
"But I want to try and help. Let's make this the first of many meetings to help make things better here."