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Meth risks linger after labs shut down
Properties where drug was made may house dangers

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The dangers of manufacturing methamphetamine can remain long after the operation ends, possibly endangering unsuspecting residents who move into a dwelling where meth once was produced.

When meth is made, “some of the fumes produced as the chemicals react to each other” can affect “people in very serious ways” because they saturate flooring, walls and other porous materials, said Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry. “The fumes pose a primary” danger of injury, “and sometimes it’s permanent lung injuries.”

In addition, when law enforcement officers find a lab, they have no way of knowing if it was the first time the drug had been made there or if “it’s the 50th time,” he said. Making repeated batches of the drug could mean the walls and flooring are more saturated with the toxins.

Because there apparently is no standard practice for cleaning up the property so it can be occupied again, or who should pay for it, unsuspecting people could move into a residence and be put at risk, Perry said.

The issue is “about public safety,” he said, because a young family potentially could buy or rent property that once housed a meth lab. If the property was not cleaned up — or not cleaned up properly and inspected — the family could be at risk, he added.

The state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and other agencies are “trying to come up with guidelines” for when a dwelling can be habitable again, Perry said. But “so far, I’m finding out that what is considered safe” before a property can be occupied “involves a substantial cleanup.”

Perry is raising alarms about the issue because it appears to be a growing problem in Henry County. Last week, he told the Henry County Board of Supervisors that five meth labs had been discovered in the county in the last nine weeks.

“This is a new harm, in a sense,” Perry said of the drug’s potential impact on the entire community.

Not only is meth a new harm, but it is an expensive one. At the supervisors’ meeting, Perry estimated the costs associated with only removing and disposing of the toxins at $2,500 — far less than the estimated $10,000 to $20,000 cost of making a property safe for residents.

Patrick County Sheriff Dan Smith, who has dealt with the meth issue since he took office, said the costs of cleaning property in which meth labs are found are “left up to land owners. Obviously, the locality is not going to be responsible for (cleaning up) the part of the property that is damaged” by making meth.

The Henry County supervisors broached the idea of requiring property owners to pay for the cleanup. No action was taken.

Later in the same meeting, the supervisors gave Perry’s office an additional $5,000 from the board’s remaining 2013 contingency fund to help offset cleanup costs.

Legislators also are discussing solutions to the cleanup issue, Perry said.

One idea discussed by some legislators is permanently affixing a notice to a property’s deed that a meth lab was found on the property, Perry said, adding that he has mixed feelings about that.

A new owner could buy the property and gut it, replacing walls, flooring, fixtures and furnishings, Perry said. In that case, “is the property probably safe? Yes it is. Suppose that new owner then lives there for 20 years. Are those toxins (from making meth) gone? Yes, they are gone,” but the permanent notice remains attached to the property’s deed.

Perry also said on Tuesday that ensuring rentals that once housed a meth lab are cleaned may pose a different problem.

That is because localities do not issue certificate of occupancy permits on rental properties, according to Perry and Henry County Attorney George Lyle.

It is a difficult situation and there are no easy answers, Perry said.

“You want to ensure that unsuspecting residents are safe from the possible health hazards” in a place where methamphetamine was made, “but I think that is something that will be looked at a lot harder now, because no one wants the taxpayers to suffer” and have to pay for the intensive cleanups.

Since there are no guidelines, Perry suggested that if someone is looking at renting or buying a property, they should contact their local police department or sheriff’s office to find out if meth had been made there. “That may be an avenue” at least until guidelines are created, he added.


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