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Active underground meth lab discovered near Amherst Walmart

An active underground meth lab was uncovered Monday in a storm sewer in the parking lot of the Walmart on Sheridan Drive and Bailey Avenue, Amherst police said.

Firefighters from both Amherst and Buffalo companies and specially trained state police in hazmat suits were lowered down into the storm sewer Monday afternoon to investigate and clean up the small but potentially toxic lab.

“We always take precautions because of the chemicals ... The chemicals are highly volatile,” said Detective Lt. JoAnn DiNoto of the Amherst Police narcotics unit.

Amherst Detective Capt. Scott Chamberlin said police discovered the underground lab while on routine patrol late Monday morning in the vicinity of the parking lot.

Seized from the manhole were an assortment of aerosol spray cans, various chemicals, plastic soda bottles, jars of clear liquid and suspected methamphetamine, which were laid out on a table under a white tent.

Chamberlin said there was no way to know how long the suspected drug lab had been in operation, though it is suspected the lab was still in use when police stumbled upon it.

“It happens all over the country, all over the state,” Chamberlin said of the meth lab.

“Is it out of the ordinary for Amherst? Has it happened here before? Yes,” he added.

There were no suspects at the scene when the lab was found and no arrests have been made in connection with the find.

The area was cordoned off to the public while the investigation and cleanup continued.

Police will examine video surveillance from outside the Walmart in its investigation of the underground drug lab, Chamberlin said.

While the term “meth lab” evokes images of a laboratory with bubbling beakers and tubes, the set-ups are usually crude and involve household materials – like cold medicine, lithium batteries, drain cleaner and salt – mixed in containers as common as a two-liter soda bottle.

In 2012, there was a spike in the number of such labs – nicknamed “one-pot labs” or “shake-and-bake labs.”

Sgt. Doug Wildermuth of the State Police Contaminated Crime Scene Emergency Response Team explained why they’re so dangerous – and commonplace. The team assisted in Monday’s incident in Amherst.

“You don’t need a chemistry background to do this,” Wildermuth said.

The fumes from the cooking method are toxic. “It can be fatal if inhaled enough,” Wildermuth said.

Some of the substances are caustic and can cause chemical burns.

But the most dangerous element comes from the metal inside the lithium batteries that are part of the concoction. “If you leave it exposed to air, it will self-ignite,” he said.

Mixed with a solvent, it can explode. “It will burn so hot, it’s called ‘white fire,’ ” he said.

email: mbecker@buffnews.com and hmcneil@buffnews.com

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