News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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December 13, 2013

Laws soft on uncleaned meth labs

Lack of strong penalties often leaves former labs as ‘blight’ on area

INDIANAPOLIS — State Rep. Wendy McNamara knew methamphetamine was a scourge on her district in southwestern Indiana, but the damaging effects of the drug really hit her when she met a real estate appraiser who’d suffered lung damage after visiting a meth-contaminated house.

The appraiser had no idea the house was once the site of a clandestine drug lab. Gone were the containers of chemicals used to cook the meth, but left behind were the toxic contaminants that permeated the carpets, walls, drains and ventilation.

That appraiser now carries protective breathing gear when he’s on the job, but McNamara thinks he and others need more protection.

The Posey County Republican plans to introduce legislation to increase public disclosure requirements for properties contaminated by meth labs and to give local officials more authority to force quicker cleanup of those properties.

“We have to find a way to protect us from people who use meth and who don’t care about anybody else,” McNamara said.

Meth labs are a big problem throughout Indiana. The state came in a close third in the nation in 2012 for the number of meth lab busts, at nearly 1,700. State police say the state is on pace for nearly 1,900 meth lab busts this year.

The state doesn't track how many of those labs are located in homes, but police say that’s where many are located. That's because the vast majority of homemade meth is now concocted by mixing pseudoephedrine and other ingredients in a soda bottle — the so-called “one-pot” method — which makes it simple to manufacture on a kitchen counter or bathroom sink, police say.

McNamara is among a bipartisan group of legislators who want pseudoephedrine returned to its earlier status as a prescription drug. They face strong opposition from pharmaceutical companies and retailers, and their measure has gained little traction.

So now lawmakers are using what they call “reactive legislation” to address problems created by meth.

“We think of meth as a health issue, but it’s also an economic issue in our local communities,” McNamara said. “Think of the local resources that go into fighting meth and its consequences.”

Police are supposed to notify local health officials when a meth lab is found in a home. The health department is then supposed to post a notice ordering the house be evacuated and remain vacant until the dwelling is decontaminated by a state certified cleanup crew.

But the cost of decontamination can run into the thousands of dollars, leading property owners to delay or simply abandon the cleanup.

While the law forbids property owners from selling the house or letting anyone move back in until the health department declares the dwelling habitable, violating the law is a misdemeanor and rarely enforced.

And owners of properties where meth labs have been found are not required to disclose that when they sell or transfer the home.

“We just don’t know the number of homes out there that are contaminated,” said Scott Frosch, safety director for the state Department of Environmental Management. “People don’t really know what they’re buying or occupying.”

Another problem: Laws covering the cleanup and monitoring of meth-polluted homes came with no extra dollars for enforcement.

“It’s an unfunded mandate from the state,” said Mindy Waldron, administrator of the Fort Wayne Allen County Department of Health. “And there are really no penalties if no one cleans up a house. It can just sit there and be a blight on the community.”

Waldron said county health departments don’t have the power to condemn a house and have little power enforcing the evacuation notices they’re charged with posting.

“Just today, somebody ripped down a notice we just posted on a house,” Waldron said earlier this week. “We don’t carry guns, we’re not the police. How are supposed to enforce this?”

State officials are compiling an online database of every meth lab busted by address. The database will include information about whether a location, if a dwelling, has been decontaminated by a certified cleanup company.

But police and environmental officials say that database is still months away from being operational.

Meanwhile, local officials worry that as the number of meth lab busts rise, there will be more vacant, contaminated houses in their communities.

“I have two houses like that within a block of my office that have sitting vacant since July,” said Plymouth Mayor Mark Senter, a former state trooper who served on a clandestine drug lab team. “There's nothing I can do about them.”

Senter is worried that the houses may revert to the county tax rolls and be bought up by a speculator who won’t invest money in cleanup. He supports a measure to require anyone buying a meth-contaminated house through a sheriff’s sale to pay cleanup costs so that the burden doesn’t fall on the county or city.

McNamara’s legislation is still a work in progress. She hasn’t filed her bill yet, but she wants to include language that would require sellers of meth-contaminated houses to disclose that information in the buyer’s purchase agreement. She also wants to find a way to strengthen the enforcement powers of county health departments and help state officials track contaminated houses to see if they're getting cleaned up.

One significant concern she has is for innocent property owners who’ve unwittingly rented homes to meth-makers “who do the damage but don't have the money to fix the damage they cause.”

“It just shows how terrible meth is,” she said. “It just leaves a lot of victims in its wake.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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