Cortland police find discarded meth lab in dumpster

A spent meth-lab started releasing gas Wednesday afternoon from an alley alongside the 22 Court Street apartment building. (City of Cortland Police Department)

City police and firefighters, as well as a special state hazardous material police unit, responded Wednesday afternoon to a spent meth lab discarded in an alley dumpster near a downtown apartment building.

Shortly before 4 p.m. a citizen noticed smoke coming from a dumpster in the alley that runs along The Red Jug Pub at 31 Central Ave. and the 22 Court St. apartment building, said city police Lt. Michael Strangeway. City police Officer Pat O’Donnell responded to the call and determined, as a result of his training, the smoke was coming from a used-up, one-liter, plastic bottle meth lab that had been thrown away in the dumpster, Strangeway said.

The smoke was actually ammonia gas that was leaking from the meth-lab bottle, he said.

“When it’s exposed to moisture, it can, in essence, reactivate the items left behind in the expended bottle and cause it to off-gas,” Strangeway said.

City firefighters stood at the ready in case the meth lab started a fire or exploded, said Deputy Chief Wayne Friedman.

The expansion of chemicals inside the one-liter bottle could have ignited or exploded the meth lab, spreading a fire to the dumpster and possibly up the side of the apartment building next to the dumpster, Friedman said. It would have been very difficult and dangerous for the firefighters to put out such a blaze in the narrow alley, he noted.

“Now you’re jeopardizing the lives of many people - not only the firefighters, but the residents who live there,” Friedman said.

Strangeway was also disturbed by the danger the lab posed to city residents

“It’s really a reckless act to put something like that in a dumpster behind an apartment building because of the risk of fire,” he said.

The ammonia gas itself was not as dangerous as it could have been because it was dissipating into the open air instead of becoming trapped in a residence, Strangeway said.

“The amount of ammonia produced in an outdoor environment is not of great concern,” he said. “In an enclosed apartment, it could be.”

The state Contaminated Crime Scene Emergency Response Team, or CCSERT, was called in to secure the hazardous materials and safely dispose of them - a process the state pays for and performs throughout New York, Strangeway said.

“To get rid of hazardous waste is extremely expensive and it’s great that they do this for us,” Strangeway said.

The investigation into the lab is ongoing and no arrests have yet been made, he said.

Wednesday’s incident was the first in several months for the city, Strangeway said, adding that overall Cortland is seeing a decline in meth labs.

Former city police Lt. Rick Troyer, who retired in January, credited the department’s cooperation with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s taskforce targeting meth for the nearly 70 percent drop in meth-lab related cases since 2017.

Each year from 2014 to 2017, CCSERT was called in to clean up between 33 and 39 meth labs discovered by police. In 2018, police had to call the team to clean only 10 meth labs.

“Obviously, it’s worked. Our meth labs have gone way down,” Troyer said in December. “And the same people are the people we’ve been chasing around for years.”