Meth trash piling up across Michigan

John Barnes and Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Petoskey — The pop bottle with the tube jutting out of its top, as well as the stuff on the bottom resembling popcorn pieces, were all Dave Schultz needed to see to know that the stretch along the Bear River was dangerous.

Those are the tell-tale signs of methamphetamine manufacturing and use. It's not the large-scale, laboratory-like production made famous by the early seasons of television's "Breaking Bad." This is a smaller-scale version of meth production, called "one-pot," that has been growing for the last decade.

Above: People seeing discarded meth-making material are advised to steer clear and notify police.

And hazardous evidence is popping up in the kinds of places in Michigan — remote, rural areas — that rarely are associated with drug problems.

"You know when the stuff we (come across) makes us nervous, it should make the public nervous, too," said Schultz, a public safety officer for the city of Petoskey in lower northern Michigan.

Michigan's meth mess is on the rise. Law enforcement agencies have discovered more than 1,500 methamphetamine active labs, abandoned dump sites and caches of ingredients across the state since 2013, according to the Michigan State Police. The number of such annual methamphetamine incidents has more than quadrupled since 2007, according to the state police.

Michigan last year had 750 incidents of clandestine labs, dump sites and equipment, putting it among the top five states in incidents. That's about half the number of neighboring and nation-leading Indiana's 1,470, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Michigan has been among the top seven states for meth incidents, which range from drug busts to finding dump sites, for the past five years. The state's national ranking has slowly inched up as the number of incidents across the country has fallen from 15,217 in 2010 to 9,240 in 2014, according to the federal drug enforcement agency.

All that means danger for state residents as they head outdoors this summer — a different kind of meth danger than Michigan faced more than a decade ago.

In 2003, state officials warned of the dangers of methamphetamine "manufactured in a home operation or mobile lab using regular household chemicals purchased from pharmacies."

Today, one-pot allows cooks to skirt laws designed to limit access to methamphetamine ingredients, such as anhydrous ammonia, pseudoephedrine tablets and lithium. Mixing smaller amounts of those materials in a plastic soda or water bottle allows meth makers to manufacture the drug almost anywhere.

Left: Police attribute some of the meth trash in Petoskey to Christopher Greenier, 33, pictured in 2013 following an explosion at an apartment operating as a meth lab. He was sentenced to prison until at least 2020.

That means the remains of these mini-methlabs can be found all over Michigan, indoors and out.

The dangers of methamphetamine and its manufacture were neatly summed up in one incident from Ishpeming late last year. Officers responding to a tip of a possible cooking operation in an apartment, discovered a man and woman suffering from exposure to the chemicals. In assisting the suspects, both officers became ill from the fumes as well.

All four needed treatment at an area hospital.

"You still have solvent or fertilizer left behind," said Michigan State Police Lt. Tony Saucedo. "It's hazardous waste if someone is exposed to it."

A one-pot bottle in the process of cooking also carries the possibility of an explosion. On Feb. 24, in Walker, an alleged one-pot meth operation resulted in an explosion and fire at a hotel room.

People who come across evidence of methamphetamine cooking operations or discarded materials are advised to steer clear and notify local law enforcement.

You don't have to look hard to see how often the public is coming into contact with one-pot leftovers, or how geographically widespread the problem is in Michigan.

■Last week, detectives in Escanaba discovered meth components in a recycling container left at a local landfill, as well as similar paraphernalia at a home 24 hours later.

■Responding to citizen reports in early April, police in Cadillac and the Charter Township of Haring in Wexford County discovered four meth labs within one week.

■In less than a week in late March and early April, Wexford and Missaukee counties responded to four citizen reports of suspicious bottles left outdoors. Each case proved to be an instance of meth production.

According the Michigan State Police's Upper Peninsula Substance Enforcement Team, its detectives responded to reports of 55 meth labs in the state's northernmost region since Jan. 1. That's an increase of 50 percent from the same period last year.

The increase in meth's presence outdoors is something Gail Gruenwald takes very seriously. The executive director for Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council is out with volunteers regularly doing work that often puts them in the kinds of areas where meth bottles are left behind.

"We do cleanups throughout the area, and we've been alerted that there are meth labs along the river and in the woods," she said. "People need to be alerted to the fact that if they're cleaning riverbanks, they have to be aware and careful about the leftovers or even the active processing of methamphetamine."