Hazmat team called to Roan Mountain to clean up meth lab

Photo by Dave Boyd
A member of a Hazmat cleanup crew works Monday night to dismantle a methamphetamine laboratory found in the woods near Old Railroad Grade Road in Roan Mountain.
By Kathy Helms-Hughes
A Ferguson-Harber hazardous materials team under contract with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrived in Roan Mountain shortly after 9 p.m. Monday to remove a methamphetamine laboratory found earlier in the afternoon on a mountain near Old Railroad Grade Road.
Carter County Sheriff John Henson said a Roan Mountain resident found a backpack while out walking Monday afternoon, and called authorities.
The sheriff's department, so far, has developed three suspects, Henson said. Those involved, he said, "went up out behind this house on top of the mountain here in a wooded area and did a cook Saturday night. They brought their remains down in a backpack and throwed it out in a ditch up there."
Because of the noxious odors associated with the chemicals used to manufacture meth, Henson said, "They're cooking a lot outside now instead of cooking in a house because they know people are going to call the law on them. So they're going out in remote areas and cooking in the woods."
When Lt. Mike Fraley arrived on the scene Monday afternoon shortly after 2 p.m. he noticed that the items, some of which were in black plastic bags, were beginning to smoke. As the sun beat down, "it got so hot it was smoking and about to catch fire," according to the sheriff.
Members of the sheriff's department, First Judicial District Drug Task Force, DEA, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Tennessee Constables Association, Roan Mountain Volunteer Fire Department and Carter County Rescue Squad were at the scene until after 10 p.m., awaiting the arrival of a hazardous materials team and closing a portion of the road to through traffic.
"You've got a lot of that junk left after you do a cook," Henson said, while waiting for the Hazmat team. "We were waiting on these people from Knoxville to clear the mess up. This is what's so time-consuming and expensive -- getting these people in here to do away with this stuff. That's some dangerous fumes. You can breathe that stuff and it will gel your lungs.
"The odor down there at the scene would just about knock you down where the sun had shined on that stuff and had got it hot and was getting it fired back up again," Henson said.
In an apparent unrelated incident, Deputy Shannon Deloach responded Saturday to a house on Roaring Creek in Roan Mountain where another meth lab was found. "It was altogether different," according to the sheriff. "They were in a house and had just started to cook when the deputies got a call up there and figured out what they had. They backed off and called DTF.
"We had to call Hazmat and get them in there to destroy the rest of the lab. The same way with this one. Anytime you have a lab, you've got to have a cleanup. And it's very expensive to have one of these things disposed of. You've got to wear these rubber suits and everything else when you're handling this stuff, and you can't inhale it [the gas]. It's dangerous," he said.
According to a DTF agent at the scene Monday night, the suspects used a "cold cook" method to manufacture the methamphetamine.
"Mostly with this method they use mineral spirits, and they also use Liquid Fire along with a combination of Rock Salt to create HCO -- hydrogen chloride gas. It also creates hydrogen gas, which is very volatile," he said.
"They use a bright spotlight and hit it with that light, and then as the hydrogen chloride gas is going into the meth base, crystals start forming, and once the crystals form, they filter it out again using coffee filters and a funnel, and what's left in the filter is the finished product. It's really wet, so now they've got to dry it. They can also at this point wash it if they have acetone. If it's not a white color, they will wash it with acetone and get all of the impurities out of it," according to the agent.
In addition to the backpack, investigators found several jars, a mixing pot, a tank of anhydrous ammonia, a nebulizer, and numerous plastic tubes.
Because the anhydrous ammonia was in an unapproved cylinder, according to the agent, the Hazmat team had to put it in water and then bleed it off slowly, the agent said. Because of the danger of explosion, emergency responders were moved away from the scene until the chemical was transferred.
The incident is under investigation with arrests expected soon, according to the sheriff.