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Methbusters 

On the street with the most aggressive drug hunters in Ohio

Page 5 of 5

For all the hopeless cases the CLET unit sees, its members focus on mitigating the collateral damage.

"My big thing is there are innocent family members who get caught up in all this, whether it's the children or someone's mom and dad," Crockett explains. "I try and rescue who I can rescue; if it's a meth cook who can be saved, I'll try. I will. But after they come out and do it again and again, we know they're not going to stop."

***

Once the Cape Cod has been cleared, and the woman and her boyfriend are packed off for the city jail, Crockett shoots out a call to three other team members. They had torn down a larger lab not 24 hours ago, and many are heading back to handle the next one without any sleep. Mainlining large cups of gas-station black, they crawl inside black fire-resistant Nomax suits, and search the property.

As a rule, the team combs contaminated houses in pairs, in case someone's consciousness slips from inhaling fumes. But their main concern is in finding active bottles cooking meth. With older methods of production, inhalation was the primary danger; nowadays, those concerns have been elbowed aside by possible explosions.

"When the Alfred P. Murrah Building [in Oklahoma City] was blown up, they used ammonium nitrate, or fertilizer, mixed with rocket fuel," Simcox says. "The one-pot meth labs are ammonium nitrate mixed with Coleman's fuel. They're mini bombs. And what makes it more dangerous to law enforcement and anybody else in the house is lithium hates water. If you put lithium and water together, it will catch fire and burn immediately."

As they emerge from the house, the CLET members lay out the cooking materials they've found — tubing, bottles, store-bought lye, crumpled tin foil — in the driveway and prepare for the last and critical part of the cleanup: neutralization.

For many years, the hefty price tag attached to safely hauling off hazardous meth lab chemicals was footed by the Drug Enforcement Agency. After the local unit would collect the nasty chemicals and meth oil, a hazardous-materials company would take it to a disposal site at a cost of $1,000 to $3,000 a pop. Thanks to the shipwrecked economy, that federal cash flow was choked off in February 2011. If Akron wanted to keep busting meth labs, it would have to tap its own budget.

"It got to be very cost prohibitive," Simcox says. "We don't want to say we slowed our efforts, but we prioritized."

They also found an innovative new technique that dramatically reduced overhead. The city paid for Simcox, Crockett, and other members of the unit to learn how to neutralize meth oil and other harsh chemicals themselves at the site of the bust, using a process right out of an AP Chemistry lab. Once cooked, meth oil is a strong basic solution. Using buffer acids, often just vinegar, the team chemically nudges the leftovers down the pH scale to neutral, at which point they solidify the substance with kitty litter and safely dispose of it. The cost: 50 bucks, tops.

***

With summer closing in, Simcox predicts a drop-off in lab busts, but not from any slowdown in use. It's just that regular police calls pick up in warmer months, leaving leave less time for meth work. Once autumn rolls around, they'll resume their crackdown at a higher clip.

If the money to fund their efforts isn't plentiful, support from the community clearly is. Working with Akron City Council, the team helped craft legislation this year that will stick homeowners with the bill for cleanup of their meth labs — a move aimed in part at making landlords more conscious of what their tenants are up to. The same legislation handed over $10,000 for a meth-awareness campaign in the city's public schools.

In the meantime, the work continues at a rapid rate. Just last week, the CLET unit had its busiest day ever. In the course of one 24-hour run, Crockett and Simcox busted four meth labs, resulting in 11 arrests and six kids turned over to protective custody.

"It was a good day," says Simcox.

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