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Meth lab bust could be biggest cleanup ever

Posted: April 22, 2014 3:30 p.m.
Updated: April 23, 2014 5:00 a.m.

In terms of the amount of toxic waste to clean up, Sunday’s discovery of a methamphetamine lab near Cassatt could result in the biggest cleanup ever in the state of South Carolina.

Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) deputies responded to an anonymous complaint of a possible meth lab at a residence on West Drive. Specially trained narcotics officers responded to the scene and discovered the operation in an adjacent outbuilding. A short time later, two people suspected of operating the lab drove up. Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews said deputies arrested Debra Page Grooms, 44, and Lloyd Otis Sams, 40, as they tried to drive away.

Matthews said deputies discovered a second meth lab in their vehicle. He said Grooms and Sams had recently been evicted from the property.

Meth labs carry the dangers of explosion, fire and noxious chemicals, so fire and EMS units were called to the scene to stand by in case of a problem. As in all meth lab cases, cleanup is the responsibility of law enforcement and Matthews said the costs can be very high. The S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) has funding for the operations and contracts with a business in Columbia that specializes in meth lab cleanup.

Matthews said officials from the cleanup company responding to Sunday’s lab discovery said the cleanup of the toxic waste from this operation may set a record for the largest waste product by weight of any meth lab in the state. Initial estimates for the cost were between $10,000 to $12,000.

That would not necessarily make it the costliest cleanup ever in the state, or even just in Kershaw County.

In May 2011, KCSO deputies discovered a major meth lab and marijuana grow in a mobile home on U.S. 601 South in Lugoff. At the time, Matthews estimated that the cleanup would cost between $50,000 and $100,000 and that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Services (DHEC) would foot the bill.

DHEC’s Jim Beasley said that the agency no longer offers financial assistance for meth lab cleanups, explaining that changes in federal law shifted that burden to SLED. Beasley was unable to provide a final cost for the 2011 cleanup by deadline Tuesday.

(After this story to went to press, Beasley sent an email stating that the cleanup of the 2011 site in Lugoff only cost $6,010.)

Matthews said his cost estimate for the 2011 case was so high because it dealt with an active meth lab, whereas Sunday’s case did not. The 2011 case also involved the murder of a woman suspected of being part of its operation; the death of her husband in deputies’ custody, apparently from meth-related complications; and the arrest of another male member of the operation on murder charges. Matthews said the number of people exposed to methamphetamine fumes, as well as the murder victim’s body, the marijuana grow and the necessary amount of decontamination all contributed to the cost of the 2011 cleanup.

This is the sixth meth lab seized in Kershaw County this year, according to Matthews.

“Methamphetamine and methamphetamine manufacturing is a growing problem in our state and county. We will be relentless in addressing this crime before it gets out of control,” he said.

Matthews said the drug is attractive because of the ease and low cost of the manufacturing process.

“It’s easy and cheap to make, but it’s very destructive. They’ve come up with easier ways to make it. You can use a 2-liter bottle like a Coke or Pepsi bottle, but the content inside is very, very volatile. If it gets knocked over it can easily cause a flash fire,” he said. “It’s a growing problem, but we’re way better off than most counties.”

Matthews said narcotics officers often learn methamphetamine makers are buying pseudoephedrine, an over-the-counter cold medicine used to make the illicit drug.

“We get tips from stores and from other customers who see people buying it,” he said. “A guy who’s selling any kind of drug in a neighborhood destroys the quality of life in that neighborhood. They also can become the target of home invasions because people know they have drugs or cash. People don’t want that kind of trouble in their neighborhoods.”

Matthews said Sams and Grooms have been arrested before on narcotics violations. They are being held in the Kershaw County Detention Center awaiting a bond hearing.

(Editor Martin L. Cahn contributed to this story.)

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