MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

January 13, 2013

SUNDAY EXTRA: Meth labs turn homes into health threats

Dangers linger unseen until thorough cleanup done

By Dylan Goforth
Phoenix Staff Writer

— Muskogee fights a constant battle with the trail of destruction left by methamphetamine abuse.

But the invisible dangers that are left behind are sometimes never fully addressed.

Muskogee Police Lt. Andy Simmons of the department’s Special Investigations Unit said that in a typical search of a home that police believe has been used to manufacture meth, officers find three things: meth, adults and their children.

The meth is seized as evidence, and the adults are arrested. The kids are placed into state custody or with relatives. What’s left behind is a residence filled with items contaminated with the remnants of the meth.

“We’ll do classes with (the Department of Human Services) and we tell them, if you take the kids, leave the diaper bag and the toys or whatever behind,” Simmons said. “Because you’re just taking contaminated stuff, and you’re giving it to the people who are taking the kids.”

Mark Woodward, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, said many of the chemicals produced in the manufacture of methamphetamine are carcinogenic, which have a slow, lingering effect on a person.

“The big concern is, you have a house that meth has been cooked in, and the homeowners just air it out, maybe paint over the walls, and it looks good and it smells good,” he said. “Then 15 years later, someone has kidney failure or liver failure. ... Who is responsible? It’s a big point of contention.”

State Rep. Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa, said Oklahoma has no law mandating the cleaning of homes that are used for cooking meth.

Scott is the author of House Bill 3201, which includes a section dictating that a landlord who “knows or has reason to know that the dwelling unit or any part of the premises was used in, or was used to aid in, the manufacture of methamphetamine at any point in the past, the landlord shall disclose this information to a prospective tenant.”

“I had a pretty good fight passing that legislation,” Scott said. “Apartment owners really didn’t want it. I said, ‘Look, it’s a step toward doing the right thing.’”

Scott said the sticking point for real estate agents and apartment owners was the amount of disclosure deemed legally necessary.

Bill Coye, a registered nurse with a long personal health background, has operated Apex Bio Clean LLC, a Tulsa cleanup service, for six years. He said he’s traveled to 14 states to clean up homes that have been used in the production of meth.

“The cleanup, it can get very expensive, because there is an enormous amount of work that goes into the cleaning,” he said. “A lot of homeowners that find out they’ve rented the house to someone who’s cooked meth in it, they say, ‘Well, I want to do the right thing and pay to have the contaminants cleaned.’ But then they see the bill and they see that they don’t legally have to clean it and they just say ‘never mind.’

“They may want to do what they’d call the right thing, but it gets costly, sometimes prohibitively so.”

Matt Burleson works for Muskogee’s SIU. When he’s called to a meth lab site, it doesn’t matter if it’s one lab or 80 labs, he has to put on a full Hazmat suit before he can handle the materials.

“It’s dangerous stuff, very dangerous stuff,” he said about the chemicals involved. “I would definitely say that anywhere a meth lab was cooked would immediately turn that area dangerous.”

Coye said no one knows the long-term effects of low-level exposure to areas contaminated by meth.

“Some people will say, ‘It’s all (made from) stuff under the sink,’” Coye said. “And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, it’s all stuff under the sink with a skull and crossbones on it.’”

Woodward said homeowners often want the state to foot the bill for the cleanup. Their argument is that the state could recoup the cost from the meth cooks through the court system.

“But the cooks have no money,” he said. “And neither does the state.

“So, what’s happened is, so far in Oklahoma, no one has been able to agree on a specific group or person that should be held responsible.”

Sand Springs has a city ordinance mandating professional cleanup of a residence believed to be involved in the manufacture of meth. Mike Carter, Sand Springs’ assistant police chief, said that when the ordinance was passed in 2010, landlords were upset, saying they felt targeted by police.

“It was very difficult to get passed; there were a lot of landlords who thought were going to make their lives so difficult,” he said. “There was a fear from landlords. We heard things like, ‘Why am I being punished because some guy rented the house and did this?’”

Carter said his reply was that, although the ordinance hadn’t been passed yet, it was simply a matter of public safety.

“If you had a resident that came in and tore holes in the walls and punched out the windows, you wouldn’t be able to rent that out to someone until that was fixed,” he said. “It’s the same thing with meth being cooked. What it leaves behind is so dangerous, and that house is just not habitable until it’s cleaned up.”

Carter said that since the ordinance was passed, there have been a handful of landlords who have had to foot the bill for a cleanup.

“We’ve found that most of the time it’s about $1,000,” he said. “We’ve found that it’s nothing that’s been insurmountable unless you’re talking about a meth fire that takes an entire building down. We haven’t had a landlord get needlessly saddled with an enormous $75,000 bill or something.”

Carter said that shortly after the ordinance was passed, a woman and her boyfriend began cooking meth in her grandfather’s house. The grandfather was in a hospital because of breathing problems, and the pair took advantage of the empty house.

“We were able to stop them from cooking, but that house was contaminated,” he said. “We stickered it. It had to be cleaned before someone could live there again. We were proud of it because otherwise, grandpa would have been walking into a house with all those carcinogens in it, and he would have had no idea.”

Carter said city officials would like to expand the ordinance in the future. Some homeowners decide not to clean a house up, and it just sits there unoccupied, he said. Under the desired plan, a house that is left contaminated for an extended time could be called permanently contaminated and leveled.

Burleson said passing a similar ordinance in Muskogee would be a dicey proposition. Sand Springs had an estimated 19,140 residents in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Muskogee had an estimated 39,231 residents.

And whereas Carter said Sand Springs police found six meth lab sites in 2012, Muskogee police reported finding more than 100.

“Are we going to condemn 100 houses?” Burleson asked. “I just don’t see how it’s possible. The problem is so widespread.”   

Reach Dylan Goforth at (918) 684-2903 or dgoforth@muskogeephoenix.com.