By Sally Voth -- firstname.lastname@example.org
With the recent resurgence of suspected meth labs in the area, a regional methamphetamine response team has seen increased action.
The team is made up of representatives from the state police, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Winchester Police Department, Strasburg Police Department and the sheriff's offices in Shenandoah, Warren, Frederick and Page counties, said state police Special Agent Jay Perry, who is the coordinator of the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force.
The team uses a DEA truck, as well as a specially equipped task force truck, he said.
"All the guys going in [to a suspected meth lab] have to be certified meth lab specialists," Perry said in a Wednesday phone interview. "They have to go in with full respirators, depending on the environment."
They also wear special chemical suits, and know what the chemicals used in making the stimulant look like.
"The fumes and things put off by a meth cook [are] definitely hazardous, sometimes deadly," Perry explained. "They're all trained to handle the dismantling of the labs. Once the labs are dismantled, we have to call a clean-up crew. They package all the hazardous materials and anything utilized for the meth cook."
The remnants are then disposed of as hazardous waste, Perry said.
The meth response team was called out to several homes suspected of having meth labs within the past week.
Officers investigating an unrelated crime found what they thought were the precursors to making meth at 710 E. King St. on May 16. Philip Eugene Chadwell, 22, of 710 E. King St., was arrested and charged with manufacturing methamphetamine, Strasburg Police Chief Tim Sutherly said.
According to an affidavit for a search warrant filed in Shenandoah County Circuit Court, officers saw acetone, coffee filters, pseudoephedrine and muriatic acid at the home.
Sutherly said Chadwell has admitted trying to make methamphetamine, as well as making explosives.
This week, drug task force agents and investigators with the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Drug Task Force (RUSH) raided several locations, including 64 Gray Owl Lane, outside of Edinburg.
Shenandoah County Sheriff's Maj. Scott Proctor said earlier this week several meth precursors, including pseudoephedrine, lye and muriatic acid, were seized, and two residents were arrested -- Steven Alan Brooks, 20, and Mitchell Lee Markley Jr., 29, Markley for an outstanding warrant in Rockingham County, and Brooks on a charge of conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine.
Proctor said the recent investigations weren't related to the Strasburg bust.
"It's just been very busy these last few days," Perry said.
He said most of the response team's work has involved "one-pot" operations where meth is being cooked in just one small container.
"We haven't seen a huge amount up in the Northern Shenandoah Valley," Perry said. "The further south you move, the more meth labs you get into. But, we have seen a definite increase so far this year in our area.
"I hope not to see as many as they have down in southwest Virginia and out in the Midwest, but it doesn't look like a problem that's going to be going away any time soon."
Prior to the meth response team's formation, the DEA was in charge of dismantling meth labs, he said.
Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter said a large amount of methamphetamine-related federal grant funding went toward training task force officers to become part of the meth response team and for equipment to process a meth lab scene.
While other task force agents might be part of a methamphetamine investigation, "the meth lab-trained individuals are the ones that actually go into the scene, make sure it's processed properly," he said.
The last major methamphetamine manufacturing operation discovered in the county involved a ring of people who stole anhydrous ammonia -- a key ingredient in the process -- from poultry plants several years ago. That was the largest meth-cooking operation the county had seen to that point.
Carter said he suspects the cases investigated this week involve someone learning how to cook meth, and then passing on that knowledge to others.
Even after the meth response team and the haz-mat teams have finished their work, dangers can remain. Houses deemed a hazard after a meth-team cleanup are placarded with warning signs, according to Perry.
"The fumes and the chemicals can get into the carpet, can get into the drapes, the linens," he said. "It's up to [the homeowner] whether they go in or not. It's up to them to clean it in the proper manner."