News From Terre Haute, Indiana

News

December 13, 2013

Failing at meth lab cleanup

Multiple agencies, departments coordinate decontamination

TERRE HAUTE — Cleaning up the environmental contamination left behind by a clandestine drug lab can be a costly process.

A property owner can spend up to $10,000 to have a certified cleanup contractor properly remove the toxic leftovers that permeate the walls, floors and furnishings of the property so that it can again be fit for occupancy. In Indiana, the cleanup is the property owner’s responsibility.

 However, the next tenants or property owners cannot always be sure that the former site of a meth lab has been correctly decontaminated. Much of that has to do with the reporting process that identifies meth lab sites, as well as follow through by agencies and property owners.

“It’s difficult to track,” said environmental health specialist Travella Myers of the Vigo County Health Department when asked about enforcement of site decontamination.

Myers said her office is supposed to receive notices from law enforcement agencies whenever they locate a meth lab so the location can be tagged as “unfit for human habitation.”

That doesn’t always happen, she said, but when it does, she sends a letter to the property owner advising that the dwelling was the site of a meth lab and should not be occupied nor can ownership be transferred until the property has been decontaminated. When the meth lab is located outdoors or in a non-dwelling, such as an outbuilding or a garage, Myers said the structure often is not inspected. Many times, the structures are in such bad shape in the first place that they are demolished, she said.

“They can be cleaned up,” she said, “and the inspection cost is not exorbitant. Once a certified contractor has identified what needs to be cleaned up, the property owner can do it themselves, then have it reinspected.”

Vigo County has a had an ongoing problem with clandestine methamphetamine production since the 1990s, as documented by police and courts. In 2012, the Indiana State Police documented only 15 labs found in Vigo County, but already through the first three quarters of 2013, that number has increased to 36 labs found.

The increase is due, in part, to a new unit working in the ISP Putnamville district that has stepped up investigation efforts to complement the county’s Drug Task Force.

“We attribute the increase to a new unit who has being doing a lot of proactive investigations,” said DTF Detective Denzil Lewis. “They have be using new investigative techniques, and doing a fantastic job.”

In Clay County, Bill Hale of the county health department also notes that meth lab busts have been on the rise, mostly due to the ISP efforts working in conjunction with local law enforcement.

However, in Clay County, the cleanup process for contaminated properties is often just a job for a demolition specialist.

“Most of the labs found here are in abandoned structures or they are mobile,” Hale said. “We’ve found a few in homes that were in such bad condition anyway that the home was torn down afterward.”

Sometimes, property owners are not aware that someone has used their land or structure to brew a batch of meth.

“We had one met lab last year in a garage of a residence, away from a house, and the people in the home weren’t aware that someone was using the garage to cook meth,” Hale said.

In Greene County, cleanup of contaminated homes happens pretty quickly, said Mark Miller, environmental health specialist with the health department. But that is due in large part to the proximity of Crisis Cleaning, a Bloomfield company that specializes in cleanups of crime scenes and meth labs.

“A lot of the rooms are four to six times the allowable limit,” Miller said of the toxic chemicals that leach into the walls and carpets of contaminated structures. “A professional company is needed to decontaminate that. And, when they are done, they send us a copy of the report that shows the results from each room.”

Miller said he has tagged five contaminated residences in Greene County so far this year. ISP data shows that 23 labs were found in Greene County last year, but many of those were trash labs discarded in ditches or rural dump sites. Still, each lab is counted as a contaminated site that requires professional cleanup.

“I think it’s a really good thing to tag the houses,” Miller said, “especially with some rental houses. You might have a family move in and not know that a meth lab was in there.”

Real estate agents are also aware of the toxic damage that meth labs can do to property.

“There might have been times that we walk into a home and didn’t even know it has been contaminated,” said Mark McCreery, an agent with RE/MAX real estate in Terre Haute, told the Tribune-Star when asked about safety of available housing.

He said area realtors occasionally run into a contaminated home that has not been properly cleaned up. Many times, a property owner will simply remove and replace the drywall and carpeting to get rid of some of the contamination.

“I’ve definitely seen homes that have been stripped, taking out the carpet and drywall,” he said.

It often depends on the lienholder for the property on how much remediation is done, he said. Some homes are bought cheap and “flipped” to make a quick profit. Unless someone -- such as a neighbor who knows the history of the property -- tells the realtor or the new tenant that a meth lab was located inside the dwelling, the contamination may not be discovered.

The hazards of living in a meth-contaminated home are numerous, including lung and respiratory problems, eye and nasal irritation, and compromised health.

The state law requires notification of not only the local health department about a meth lab site, but also the local fire department, and the Department of Child Services if children are found residing in a meth lab house.

 ISP 1st Sgt. Niki Crawford, the Meth Suppression section commander, said that all labs should be reported to local health departments, and it is the responsibility of the agency removing the lab components to issue that report, so that the contamination notices can be sent out.

Crawford said that while the Vigo County Health Department may not have documented notification of all meth lab locations in the county, it is the ISP procedure to issue those notices as soon as a report of a lab is received. It is then up to the local health departments to follow up with the property owner notification and to document that cleanup has occurred.

If a dwelling is reoccupied without being decontaminated, Crawford said, the tenant can be ticketed for trespassing.

The law carries no criminal penalties, however, for the property owner who does not properly decontaminate a dwelling.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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