22 METH LABS FOUND IN ANTELOPE VALLEY RAIDS NEARLY DOUBLED IN FIRST PART OF YEAR.
PALMDALE - Discoveries of Antelope Valley methamphetamine laboratories have nearly doubled in the first four months of 2002, but officials say the increase most likely is because sheriff's deputies are finding more - not that more labs are being operated.
Twenty-two labs have been raided since Jan. 1, compared with 12 found in the year-ago period, according to a federally funded county-state antimethamphetamine task force.
``The increase I would attribute to aggressive law enforcement investigations conducted by the local narcotics bureaus, both Palmdale and Lancaster,'' said sheriff's Sgt. Tony Hollins who heads the North County Meth Lab Task Force, LA IMPACT ALERT North team
Since January, the task force has seized 11 pounds of finished methamphetamine, 62 gallons of liquid methamphetamine and tons of chemicals used in the making of the stimulant, which is finding a growing market nationwide among drug abusers.
Those figures include busts elsewhere in northern Los Angeles County, but most of the material came from a lab found in Juniper Hills in January, Hollins said.
Since its formation in July 1998, the team has investigated a total of 214 labs from Malibu to Antelope Valley, with 195 of those in the Antelope Valley - a region whose wide open spaces are attractive to drug manufacturers trying to hide their labs.
The unit's full name is the North County Meth Lab Task Force, Los Angeles Interagency Metropolitan Police Apprehension Crime Task Force Allied Laboratory Emergency Response Team North.
The task force consists of Hollins and five sheriff's investigators, two state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement investigators and a secretary. Funding is through a federal program called High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
The team is called out after local deputies find a lab.
They don protective clothing, test for toxins like phosphine gas that the meth manufacturing process creates, then disassemble the lab. Chemicals are tested to determine what they are.
``They then request a hazardous chemical company be dispatched to safely neutralize these chemicals and destroy the associated items,'' Hollins said.
The team's responsibilities include notifying the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services' Drug Endangered Children team if children are living in a home where a lab was located.
Since mid-1999, Drug-Endangered Children program officials have removed 60 children from 34 families in the Antelope Valley alone.
The children are examined for symptoms of exposure to hazardous chemicals, then given developmental, physical, dental and psychological tests and placed in a foster home.
The DEC is trying to get money to buy diagnostic equipment to test children for exposure rather than rely on physical symptoms, an official said.
``Six other counties currently have this equipment and report that between 40 and 50 percent of the children tested are testing positive,'' said Department DEC Coordinator Emilio Mendoza.
Chemicals that could be used for making methamphetamine were found in this makeshift laboratory in the Antelope Valley. Discoveries of meth labs are up sharply this year.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department