WASILLA - The Matanuska-Susitna area is the methamphetamine capital of Alaska, according to Alaska State Troopers.
In 2003, authorities uncovered nine meth labs in the area. Last year, the number increased to 42, said Kyle Young, an investigator with the troopers who works with the Mat-Su narcotics team.
Officials with the Office of Children's Services in Wasilla said the problem affects children. The office receives about 40 calls a month from people reporting abuse or neglect involving some aspect of the highly addictive drug.
In late February, the Mat-Su narcotics unit arrested a couple at their Willow home. Michelle Motta said for years she tried to warn authorities that her three young nieces lived in the midst of a methamphetamine operation run by their parents, Phillip Dean and Laura Jackson.
Alaska State Troopers reported finding a "large active meth lab" in a detached garage shop. The house was a frigid mess, with piles of dirty dishes, clothes everywhere and frozen pipes, investigators said.
Through a hatch in the shop floor, the team found an underground room with a meth lab in one corner, as well as old marijuana root balls and lights from a past pot-growing operation.
An investigator said the team didn't find the children at home but saw signs of them there. Motta said the girls - ages 14, 8 and 6 - at times slept in the garage with the lab.
A year ago, the oldest girl detailed the household's rampant drug problems and squalid living conditions in a handwritten letter to a judge.
"My parents grow marijuana and crystal the(y) did the drugs that they bought in front of (my sisters)," the letter begins. "They spent most money on them instead of food or doing laundry. I got left home with nobody there I got left home with drug(g)ies..."
Motta now has custody of her three nieces. The Jacksons are jailed at Mat-Su Pre-Trial Facility in Palmer.
Children sharing homes with meth labs face the risk of contamination, fire, explosion, neglect and hazardous living conditions. Caseworkers report little children complaining of breathing problems from toxic fumes rising off chemicals such as acetone, ammonia and hydrochloric acid.
When authorities surrounded a converted bus housing a meth operation in Big Lake in January, a 13-year-old boy who answered the door bragged that his mom cooked the best meth in the valley, according to the troopers.
During a 2003 bust at a house outside Wasilla, officers discovered five children living inside, all younger than 8 years old.
The calls about meth to children's services in Wasilla accounts for as many as 40 percent of the agency's total monthly child protection calls.
The troopers are aggressively going after meth labs, said Capt. Ed Harrington, the supervisor of the state's drug and alcohol enforcement unit.
"It's just not a simple process," Harrington said. "Just because somebody calls in and says 'So and so's cooking meth' doesn't mean we're going to kick the door in the next night."