News and Tribune

December 15, 2013

Cleaning up the meth mess: Legislation aims to detoxify dwellings

By MAUREEN HAYDEN and GARY POPP
newsroom@newsandtribune.com

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 to 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 issues in our local communities,” said McNamara. “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 last 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.

“We do take it [responses to meth production sites] very seriously,” said Julia Hayes, environmental supervisor with the Floyd County Health Department. “Part of our training brings to light the dangers that can come with these meth labs and the chemicals that are produced.

“A lot of [meth production] does occur in rental homes with a high turnover rate,” Hayes added, “so a lot of people can be exposed to these harmful chemicals who don’t even know or have anything to do with drugs.”

If inspection results are below a set level, the home is deemed safe and can be reoccupied, according to Hayes. If a home is identified as a location of a meth lab, the health department works to ensure the home does not share a heating and air conditioning system with other dwellings in the building — which could pose dangers to residents.

Hayes said the Floyd County Health Department will prevent the use and access to vehicles and outbuildings of residential properties where meth labs were found. In those cases, she said testing and reports of decontamination is required similar to a contaminated residence.

“We try to be pretty diligent when it comes to a meth lab being anywhere because you don’t know if children or who might be going into those outbuildings and be exposed,” Hayes said.

The health department receives the occurrence reports for meth labs found not only in homes, but also vehicles, outbuildings, motel rooms or anywhere in the communities, including remnants of a lab discarded along a roadway, according to Hayes.

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