Reporter Jason Whong’s recent, comprehensive watchdog report on the reemergence of methamphetamine as an undeniable threat to local communities across the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions does a great service.
It may not be the most encouraging reading, but we ignore it at our own risk — no matter how unsettling.
For the past few years, I’ve been noting the dramatic rise in meth-related arrests and other incidents across the region. I’ve said over and over that it seems like we could give a meth-bust-of-the-month award around here. In fact, early last year, on the very day in April that the state Senate was voting on one piece of legislation I sponsor to further outlaw meth labs, police and firefighters in Elmira were on the scene of a suspected lab in the city. During one week alone in mid-June in Chemung County, there were three meth lab discoveries.
This newspaper’s December report bears it out: 17 meth lab incidents in New York in 2009, 35 in 2010, 46 in 2011 — followed by a huge jump to 147 in 2012.
There was a time, a few years ago, when the question was this one: Is meth making a comeback? That’s not even the right question anymore. Any number of local law enforcement officers will say “yes,” for a variety of reasons. It’s getting easier to manufacture the drug. Tough economic times spark a rise in overall criminal behavior, and making and selling meth can be profitable. Crackdowns on crime in large cities such as Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse drive more and more criminals, including drug dealers, toward smaller cities, towns and villages.
The question now is: What’s our response?
It was just six years ago, in early 2005 at the start of my first term in the Legislature, when a State Investigations Commission report identified the Southern Tier as a potential hotbed of meth-related criminal activity. Many of us will recall that the report was dropped on the region’s doorstep a little over a year after the killings of two Bradford County sheriff’s deputies — Michael A. VanKuren and Christopher M. Burgert — during a meth-related arrest.
It all served to heighten our area’s already-growing fears over meth’s proliferation and it led to a strong, bipartisan legislative effort that produced New York’s first comprehensive strategy to combat the manufacture and sale of meth. The 2005 law put in place tough new criminal penalties to outlaw clandestine labs, promoted greater community awareness and education, and sought to address the environmental hazards associated with meth labs.
It was one of New York’s landmark anti-drug laws, but it’s clear that we can’t sit back against meth or any other highly addictive drug and illegal drug trafficking. The effort requires constant attention. It may require new laws. I’m currently sponsoring or co-sponsoring legislation to further outlaw the operation of clandestine meth labs and the sale of meth, as well as to enhance the ability of local police and district attorneys to track and prosecute violations of restrictions on over-the-counter sales of cold medications that are key ingredients used in cooking meth.
And as explored in detail by this newspaper’s report, I’ll also be pushing legislation in 2014 to require sellers of homes that were previously the site of an illegal meth lab — and therefore contaminated with the hazardous chemicals left behind by meth labs — to disclose this information to potential home-buyers.
The first line of defense, as always, is simply about reigniting local awareness and education. One of the reasons we were so successful six years ago was because it literally became a crusade among law officers, district attorneys, legislators, news reporters, first responders, educators and concerned citizens to help defend our communities. A steady drumbeat of public awareness is still effective. Some of this past year’s arrests came about because watchful citizens didn’t hesitate to alert local law enforcement to suspicious activity. “If you see something, say something” applies to meth too.
To those caught in the terrible spiral of drug abuse and addiction, we need to let them know that there are ways out and treatment is available.
Maybe most critical of all is the consistent message we keep sending to our young people about the dangers of substance abuse, in all its forms. The dangers and endless pitfalls associated with illegal drugs should never be taken lightly or dismissed out of hand. Too often the abuse of one drug leads to the abuse of another, more addictive, dangerous and destructive substance.
Remember what we learned the first time around: Once a culture of meth invades a region, it sinks deep roots and rapidly spirals out of control. The drug’s proliferation promises equally escalating costs to local systems of health care and social services, more violent crime, higher numbers of drug-endangered children, more and more hazardous waste sites dotting our communities, and increasing risks for local law enforcement officers and first responders.
That’s all still true. Those familiar with meth’s devastation are quick to share this advice: Do everything within your power to drive meth manufacturers and dealers out of your communities.
We need to heed that advice all over again. It starts with understanding that we can’t underestimate the danger.
Buyers, renters left in dark on former meth-making in their new home
- Unlike 23 other states, no laws exist in New York or Pennsylvania requiring property owners to disclose to buyers or tenants that a methamphetamine manufacturing lab had operated in a property.
• No published list of former meth labs is available from New York or Pennsylvania. A federal listing of former drug labs is available but largely incomplete, and does not specify which drug was made.
• No state laws or guidelines exist in New York or Pennsylvania for decontaminating former meth labs in residences. The federal government has guidelines, but no standards.
• Because local governments in New York and Pennsylvania have no state guidance for meth lab cleanups in homes, local code enforcement officials sometimes address it in their own ways.
N.Y., Pa. meth tally
From 2004 to 2012 in New York, 415 meth lab incidents, including labs, dump sites, and chemical and glassware seizures were reported by or to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Pennsylvania had 529 such reports for that period.
When you buy or rent a residence, the current owner is required to disclose information, including the presence of hazards such as lead paint or asbestos.
But in New York and Pennsylvania, the same owner does not have to tell you the property is a former methamphetamine manufacturing lab, where a concoction of dangerous chemicals might have been mixed in the bathtub or spilled on the floor in the process of producing the addictive and illegal drug.
In 23 other states, the concern over the health of people moving into former meth labs is so great that some form of disclosure is required for buyers or renters.
Twenty-five states — but not New York or Pennsylvania — also have standards or guidelines for how former meth labs should be decontaminated. Those standards often require significant effort before the building can be occupied again.
Meth addicts or pushers make meth by mixing and cooking household chemicals and drugs in a dangerously messy process.
When law enforcement authorities raid a lab, they often wear “moon suit” protective gear to protect their health from exposure to those chemicals. About five pounds of toxic waste is generated as a byproduct for every pound of meth manufactured, and that waste often is disposed of haphazardly, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Laws, regulations or guidelines about cleaning up meth labs in other states often result in the removal of carpets and furniture, and demolition of contaminated wood and walls to protect future residents of the building.
But in New York and Pennsylvania, the extent of decontamination, if any, is left up to the owners.
The lack of oversight hasn’t gone completely unnoticed in New York. The state Commission on Investigation eight years ago recommended that the state consider a remediation standard.
Yet, legislators or their representatives from New York and Pennsylvania contacted for this story thought police were cleaning up properties when they shut down meth labs, or that some part of government already handled cleanup, only to discover that wasn’t the case. They say they intend to introduce legislation that would require full cleanup of former meth labs.
“Regulation-wise, I would think there’s something out there,” said Nick Troutman, aide to Pennsylvania state Sen. Gene Yaw, after mentioning a state law that requires someone convicted of making meth to pay for the costs of cleanup.
A day later, after finding no regulations, guidelines or procedures that said how meth labs should be fully decontaminated, Troutman said Yaw would likely help introduce a bill to address it this legislative session.
New York State Sen. Tom O’Mara, a Republican/Conservative from Big Flats who has championed other legislation to fight meth-making, pledged to examine remediation oversight, after he was alerted to the problem when this report was prepared.
“It’s a good angle, and an angle I really hadn’t looked into up to this point,” O’Mara said. “I’ll be looking at how I can move this forward,” he said, noting that he would support a bill that had been held up in a Senate committee.
After meth became illegal in 1970, the drug faded from national popularity until its re-emergence in the western U.S. and Hawaii in the 1980s, according to a 2005 Department of Justice report. The drug’s popularity grew in the 1990s in the West and Northwest, and by 2000, it began to show up in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.
Health experts know that exposure to some of the chemicals used to make meth can cause health problems, but little research has been done on the impact of living in a former meth lab on the new owners or tenants.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists 53 chemicals associated with meth production, but many of the chemicals can be used as substitutes for each other. A lab can use multiple ways to make meth, so chemicals leftover after meth is manufactured, and the resulting toxic byproducts, can vary.
The toxic cocktail can include:
• Coleman fuel, which is flammable, can irritate the skin, and can cause dizziness, nausea, blurred vision, drowsiness and loss of coordination. Chronic exposure to the fuel can damage sensory and nerve cells, kidneys and the liver.
• Lithium, taken from batteries and used in meth production, reacts to moisture and corrodes any tissue it contacts. Inhalation of lithium fumes can irritate or damage the upper respiratory tract.
• Sodium hydroxide, also known as lye or caustic soda, is corrosive and poisonous. Depending on its concentration, inhalation can cause mild irritation or severe damage to the upper respiratory tract. Meth makers convert the sodium hydroxide to sodium, which can cause chemical and heat burns if it reacts with skin moisture, mucus membranes or eyes.
• Meth production also requires the use of solvents, such as benzene, acetone, normal hexane or toluene. Prolonged exposure to high concentrations of acetone can cause death. Chronic exposure to benzene can cause anemia or leukemia. Chronic inhalation of normal hexane can cause peripheral nerve disorders and central nervous system damage. Exposure to toluene while pregnant can affect fetal development.
Once police have left a meth lab with the dangerous chemicals and wastes they’ve collected, it’s not clear what is left behind — the only way to know for sure is to test.
Because meth can be made using common household items, with easy access to recipes and with a basic knowledge of chemistry, it lends itself to production in small towns, where other illicit drugs may not be readily available.
That was the case in 2011 in the Town of Dix, a small community of around 3,800 people just south of Watkins Glen State Park in Schuyler County.
John Barton, 33, who was recently sentenced in U.S. District Court in Rochester for his role in a meth lab there, told the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that he made the meth at a shed behind his rented home, where he also slept. At the time, it was called the largest meth bust in the Southern Tier.
Barton said it usually took him about two hours to cook meth, and he kept all the lab equipment in the shed. He would use two boxes of pseudoephedrine – legally used for nasal congestion — for each batch. A batch would last Barton from one to two weeks.
In his manufacturing process, Barton used anhydrous ammonia to extract the pseudoephedrine from the tablets before adding “hydrochloro smoke” to the mixture.
“Boom! It’s not rocket science,” Barton told a DEA agent.
People would bring Barton boxes of over-the-counter drugs and later return to pick up some meth, he said.
Barton also told the agent he would give a friend the waste left over from cooking meth, and the friend discarded the waste in the trash.
Contaminated crime scenes
Although the place where meth is made usually is referred to as a lab, the typical site looks more like the kitchen of an incredibly messy cook than an industrial chemistry lab.
Brion Peters, 55, and Gary Varlan, 54, two men convicted in the May 2011 meth lab fire in the Town of Baldwin that killed Kanisha Wood, 20, of Elmira, testified at Peters’ trial that part of their meth-making process included heating a fuel solution in plastic pitchers. The process also involved taking the lithium out of batteries, according to testimony at the trial.
The fatal fire started when Peters picked up one of the plastic pitchers from a wood stove. The pitcher had become so hot that it stretched out “like bubble gum” and leaked the highly flammable fuel onto the floor, according to testimony from Brian Yontz, of Elmira, at Peters’ trial.
When police raid a meth lab, they send in specially trained people wearing protective clothing and breathing equipment to remove and dispose of the chemicals, toxic waste and lab equipment found inside. In New York, the state police Contaminated Crime Scene Emergency Response Team usually goes to the scene.
Meth lab responders generally have 40 to 80 hours of hazardous-materials training, while members of the state police team also have attended 40 hours of meth-specific training led by the DEA in Quantico, Va., said state police Sgt. Doug Wildermuth.
Photos and video used in media reports from the police response could give the impression that the house is cleaned up once police have left the scene. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the building and surrounding land are safe.
“Even when all the chemicals and toxic waste are removed from a methamphetamine lab, the problems of cleaning, or remediating, the chemical residues and contaminated surfaces remain,” the New York State Commission of Investigation wrote in the 2005 report to the governor and legislature about meth use and meth making.
Little has been done since the commission concluded that the state should study standards for decontaminating former labs.
Federal law does not require the cleanup of former meth labs. In 2007, Congress directed the EPA to come up with guidelines, but not regulations on the subject.
Current cleanup standards in 25 states require or suggest that meth exposure be reduced to levels ranging from from 0.05 to 1.5 micrograms of meth per 100 square centimeters, about 15 square inches, of surface area sampled. A microgram is one one-millionth of a gram, and there are roughly 28 grams in an ounce. The cleanup standard assumes that removing meth also removes harmful chemicals and wastes, according to the EPA’s guidelines, last updated in March. Connecticut, New Hampshire and West Virginia, for example, have published guidelines that specify a cleanup target of 0.1 micrograms.
In West Virginia, testing for other chemicals may be required by the state. The state law also provides rules for a cleanup, which is the responsibility of the property owner.
“In New York, it is generally up to local health departments to determine what remediation is required,” the state commission wrote in its 2005 report. Local code enforcement departments also play a role by deciding whether former meth lab structures are fit to be occupied.
In both states, the government agencies that regulate the environment have no regulations specifically about cleaning up meth labs, although both have rules about hazardous materials that apply to the removal of the chemicals and wastes.
Although the New York commission wrote in 2005 that remediation standards fall on local health departments, that responsibility has mostly been passed to code enforcement in Chemung, Broome, Tompkins, Tioga and other counties.
Local code enforcement officers “have little or no guidance in what they should be doing” when working with meth labs, said Michael S. Smith, director of the Chemung County Office of Fire and Emergency Management.
“I don’t know that we necessarily have the scientific resources that would be required to develop a policy, and really, why would you want 57 separate remediation policies for the state?” Smith said, referring to the 57 counties in New York that aren’t part of New York City.
Rocco Picarazzi, director of code enforcement for the City of Elmira, said that after police have left the scene of a meth lab, his department posts notices on the property, forbidding occupancy, until they determine how serious any safety threat might be.
“When we feel it’s safe, we open it back up, but we can require air monitoring from an outside agency. We can, if it’s real bad, because that stuff can get in the carpets,” Picarazzi said.
Smith said there are a number of unanswered questions confronting code enforcement agencies, including figuring out how contaminated a site is, how best to clean it, whether it should be demolished and how to dispose of contaminated parts of the building.
“There is no arbiter of the level of contamination that has occurred. The local code guy doesn’t necessarily know how long has this been going on, what have they been using, how sloppy was their (meth-making) process,” Smith said.
Chris White, a spokesman for the state Department of Labor, which regulates professional asbestos abatement, referred questions about meth lab regulations to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
State DEC spokeswoman Linda Vera said meth lab remediation of homes is under the jurisdiction of local or state departments of health, though the DEC does get involved with the identification and proper disposal of chemicals used to make meth, but “soils, surface waters and groundwater are seldom impacted” by meth labs, she said.
Meth manufacturing has been on the rise in New York since that report eight years ago. In Pennsylvania, production slowed down, but it has picked back up again.
According to the DEA, there were 147 meth lab-related incidents (including seizures of labs, chemicals and glassware, and the finding of dump sites) in New York in 2012, a record high. In Pennsylvania, there were 96 incidents, well short of 2004’s record of 136, according to the data.
DEA data keeping track of meth labs since 2004 show the labs on a downward trend after Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, which made it much more difficult for buyers to get larger quantities of the over-the-counter medicine, such as pseudoephedrine, used to make meth.
Since then, meth-making has evolved. While it’s harder to get the ingredients for a large batch of meth, it’s relatively easy to make it in smaller batches.
Sgt. Wildermuth said 90 percent of meth labs he goes to these days in New York use a small-batch method of production called the “one-pot” or “shake-and-bake” method.
Today, disclosing a property’s meth history falls to owners or realty agents, who decide whether they want to say anything about illegal drugs produced on the site.
“I don’t believe you can (morally) rent a place to someone without telling them that, hey, this was here,” said Gary Fredericks, who is the property owners’ agent for 200 Harmon St. in Elmira, where police in April found a meth lab in the downstairs apartment.
“I think you would be morally wrong, especially if there were children, who, because of their lower weight, would be more susceptible.”
The property owners lost $2,800 over roughly 60 days by not being able to rent the downstairs apartment, and in money spent to hire cleaners to shampoo the carpets and furniture inside, scrub each wall and dispose of contaminated items, Fredericks said.
Potential property buyers or renters who want to research the history of a residence to check for meth-making can’t do so easily in either New York or Pennsylvania.
On the Internet, buyers or renters might find the property on an incomplete federal list of drug labs or a New York list not designed for that purpose. (Pennsylvania has no such list on the Internet.) With more digging, the property may be found in news reports at libraries or by making open-records requests to local governments.
The DEA publishes a national “clandestine lab” registry, but it doesn’t guarantee the accuracy of the data there, in part because most of the data don’t come from the DEA. Much of it comes from local and state law enforcement agencies, who don’t have to tell the DEA of drug lab finds. Some of the agencies’ records contain incomplete information and different addresses for identical incident reports.
Frederick Faucett, 55, of Elmira, who lives with his wife and mother-in-law on the second-floor apartment of a house on the city’s Northside, was unaware that a 2004 meth lab bust put his address on the DEA’s list until a reporter told him.
There are two apartments there, but the list didn’t include an apartment in the address.
Elmira police records show that meth was being made in an unattached garage north of the home by someone who lived in the upstairs apartment. Faucett, who has lived at the home for about three years, doesn’t have access to the garage.
A few states have registries of former meth labs. In some places, the lists are maintained by local governments rather than states.
In Tennessee, a database of all meth seizures is maintained by the state Methamphetamine Task Force, which had 15,684 seizures recorded as of June, spokesman Jim Derry said. Aside from address information, the database keeps track of which agency responded, which officer wrote the report, the officer’s phone number, the date the property was quarantined (if it was at all) and the date when the cleanup was approved.
New York State Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat, in January proposed legislation to require written disclosure of a property’s status as a former meth lab and establish guidelines for cleanup or demolition of former meth labs.
“When homebuyers and renters are kept in the dark about meth contamination, serious health problems can take entire families by surprise, and the costly remediation bills for cleanup often lead to serious financial hardships,” Kennedy said in a statement when he introduced the bill. “Our proposal will protect homeowners and renters by ensuring sellers and landlords fully disclose a property’s status as a former meth lab prior to purchase or lease-signing.”
The bill also would establish a state-sponsored listing of properties deemed contaminated, and requires that people who remove their own personal property from meth labs either clean or dispose of them according to rules to be established by the state.
Kennedy’s bill was referred to the state Senate Judiciary Committee in March, but it never came up for a vote, said John Mackowiak, Kennedy’s spokesman. Kennedy plans to re-introduce the bill in the next legislative session, he said.
State Sen. O’Mara said he had been in touch with Kennedy’s staff about the legislation. “I’m sure I’ll be working with him on trying to move that forward,” O’Mara said. “I think a statewide standard would be appropriate for something of this significance.”
In Pennsylvania, Sen. John Rafferty, a Republican who represents Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties, proposed legislation in 2011 that would require sellers and landlords to disclose meth contamination to buyers and renters, and set standards for remediation. That bill was sent to the Senate appropriations committee, and didn’t make it out before the end of the session, according to Senate records.