Brandy Allen, a long-recovered user of methamphetamine, once worked with children and adults affected by the drug, and spoke against its use as part of the Montana Meth Project, an anti-meth advertising campaign in Montana.
Today, she and her two children live in an apartment at a well-kept five-plex at 614 12th St. N. in Great Falls that’s one of 215 properties in Montana the state Department of Environmental Quality says remain contaminated with toxins resulting from past clandestine meth labs.
Allen didn’t know about the listing until Tribune reporters checking the status of those properties in Cascade County told her.
“Was it a lab?” an incredulous Allen asked, her voice rising. “This was a lab?”
Steve Galloway, the owner of the property, was shocked to learn the property was on the list, too, and he’s since contacted the DEQ and a cleanup contractor. But he doubts whether a cleanup is necessary because he disputes a former renter ever cooked meth there, even though meth-making materials were confiscated from the basement of the apartment.
“If there had been something left there, and there had been any kind of issue, I would have had to do something way back then,” Galloway said.
Cascade County has more properties on the state’s meth house list — 38 — than any other county in Montana, and the list includes Allen’s apartment.
Years after the busts occurred — a bust occurred at 614 12th St. N. in 2004 — court records and interviews with landlords sometimes offer conflicting accounts regarding what actually went down at the properties.
But in the view of the DEQ’s meth cleanup program, the addresses remain contaminated, and state law requires that they stay on the list until a professional contractor assesses them and performs a cleanup if necessary. Otherwise, the law says, renters and homebuyers need to be told of their drug history.
“The concern is to not only the people living in them, but also the people that clean them up,” said Deb Grimm, the DEQ’s manager of the meth cleanup program, who compares the way meth residue permeates a residence to cigarette smoke. “Meth is toxic. And oftentimes other chemicals used to make meth react with the cleaning products used.”
Public unaware of list
Visits by Tribune reporters to the meth properties in Cascade County found several residents, including Allen, who were not aware that the state considers the properties where they live uninhabitable because of past meth lab operations.
That’s despite the public list on the DEQ website and the requirement in the law that they be told.
“I think Realtors, it’s pretty common knowledge with them, but the average public doesn’t know and really isn’t aware of the DEQ site,” Sandy Johnson, environmental health manager for the Cascade City-County Health Department, said of the DEQ’s meth properties list.
“I think that the property owner is required to notify a renter,” Johnson added. “But to be honest, I don’t know if that is occurring, but that’s what the law says they’re supposed to do.”
The Tribune check of the properties also found that the DEQ erred in continuing to publicly list one property even after the property owner had properly cleaned it up, and the agency failed to contact Galloway to let him know his property was being listed on a list of contaminated properties.
215 properties on list
Across Big Sky Country, 215 meth-contaminated properties dot cities and rural areas alike, according to the DEQ’s meth contaminated properties list.
In Cascade County, 30 of the 38 properties are located in Great Falls.
“If I would have known, I probably wouldn’t have bought it,” said Dawn Wilson, 36, who owns a mobile home at 5405 Lower River Road south of Great Falls.
Wilson also was unaware her home was on the list.
“If it’s been used as a meth lab, that’s unnerving,” she said.
Her 5-year-old son, wearing a T-shirt with “Mom’s Lil’ Rebel” on the front, played on the steps.
After being contacted by the Tribune, Wilson checked with the previous owner of the mobile home and learned it is not the same meth-contaminated house on the state’s list, despite having the same address. The mobile home on the state’s list, it turned out, was removed from the property. That was a relief to Wilson. Besides her son, she’s also raising her 6-month-old granddaughter.
However, the DEQ still views the site as contaminated, and the address will remain on the list because the agency was never informed the former mobile home was removed, Grimm said.
Even if a mobile home is disposed of, a cleanup contractor is required to oversee it because the DEQ doesn’t want contaminated mobile homes being transported down city streets with the windows open, Grimm said.
“If it’s not the trailer, and it was the trailer before, it would be nice if they take me off the list,” said Wilson, who had hoped to sell her mobile home one day.
Tribune archives show the Central Montana Drug Task Force discovered a meth lab at the property, including 7,500 pills of cold medication locked in a safe. Pseudoephedrine contained in the pills is used in the meth-cooking process.
‘I didn’t know’
In Cascade County, the properties on the state’s list range from out-of-the-way, run-down mobile homes on dead-end streets to homes near schools to vacant commercial buildings to well-kept apartments to barns out in the country.
“I didn’t know it was on that list, but I know there was a bust here a long time ago,” said a woman who answered the door at 121 16th St. N.W. in Black Eagle, another address on the list.
The bust occurred March 22, 2012, according to the DEQ’s list.
The properties, remnants of law enforcement’s war on illicit meth manufacturing, are still home to many, but other sites are unoccupied.
“The bank owns the place,” shouted neighbor Olaf Medrud, 26, about the house next door, 1014 4th Ave. S., which is on the meth-contaminated properties list. “The outside looks decent. There’s a bunch of graffiti on the other side of the house.”
A notice on the front door says the house is vacant or abandoned. Telephone books are piling up on the front porch. The DEQ says a bust occurred at the property in October 2012.
“Until the EPA enacts some federal legislation that governs all of the United States, I think Montana is doing a good job and being proactive in listing those properties for the public so they’re aware before they rent, or lease or buy that the property was once a meth lab,” the DEQ’s Grimm said.
Protection a goal
The public list of meth properties and the state’s meth cleanup program were created in 2005, about the time the number of meth labs was peaking, to protect renters and home buyers, encourage cleanups and ensure that cleanup contractors were trained to handle toxic messes created by cooking the drug, she said.
Today, the state is one of about 19 with meth cleanup standards.
Grimm says six to seven properties on the list are being cleaned by homeowners each year.
One of the biggest threats to people living in the contaminated homes is the risk of skin exposure to contaminated surfaces and breathing it in when particulate is circulated through heating systems, she said.
Children are particularly susceptible to exposure to meth contamination because they crawl on floors, Grimm said.
Health effects caused by exposure to meth lab chemicals depend on the lab process and chemicals used, the amount of chemical and length of exposure, and the age and health of the person exposed, health authorities say. Less severe exposures can result in headaches, nausea, dizziness and fatigue or lethargy. Liver and kidney damage, neurological problems and increased risk of cancer can occur with long-term exposures.
“I think it’s been so long ago, I don’t think there’s much left to worry about health-wise,” said Robert, who lives at 25 Golden Valley Loop outside of town, another Great Falls area resident who was unaware the home he’s living in is on the meth contaminated properties list.
He’s not concerned and has noticed no ill health effects.
The home is on the list as a result of a meth lab bust in 2001. He loves the location.
“On a very clear day, you can look out there and see the Rockies,” said Robert, who declined to give his last name.
Studies have shown, Grimm said, that meth doesn’t biodegrade and that it remains on surfaces for many years after a bust, with the drug itself and chemicals used to make it posing health threats to the people living in them.
Homeowners who attempt to clean the properties on their own can spread the meth around, paint over it and risk becoming sick or exposed themselves if they don’t wear the proper respirator, gloves and clothing, and that’s why the state requires that a certified contractor be hired before the sites are given a clean bill of health, Grimm said.
In 2005, a housekeeper in Butte had to be hospitalized after becoming ill when she went into a motel room being used as meth lab, she said.
“It’s not as easy as just wiping it down and vacuuming it,” said Tom Koch of Koch Environmental Health in Denver.
Couple bought house
Koch was the principal author of the evaluation and remediation guidance document for meth labs published a few years ago by the American Industrial Hygiene Association. It’s considered a national model for proper meth cleanups. Previously, meth lab cleanup work lacked guidance, Koch said.
When meth is cooked, it’s akin to amateur chemistry, with the mixing of chemicals and ingredients from cold medications that create harmful gases and powder as fine as flour that get all over, including into duct work, he said.
Ingredients used in the cooking process include over-the-counter medications, such as pseudophedrine, along with acids, bases, metals, solvents and salts.
“It’s very difficult and very expensive to clean up, and a lot of them are under the radar,” Koch added. “For everybody on your list, there’s probably a dozen not on your list or more.”
Only properties reported to the DEQ by law enforcement make the list, and the reporting is not optional.
James and Josephine Slack, a Helena couple, testified in a 2010 trial in Lewis and Clark County District Court that they may not have unknowingly purchased a meth house had it been properly listed on the DEQ’s website.
A jury found Lewis and Clark County negligent for failing to report the meth-contaminated property outside of Helena to the DEQ and awarded the couple $563,592 in damages.
During a deposition of James Slack, he reported people banging on the door at 3 a.m. after the family had moved in. They purportedly received visits from people looking for drugs as a result of the past drug activity in the home. One doctor told the couple that blood tests on their children showed abnormal results similar to what is caused by meth exposure.
The Slacks were notified in a letter from the DEQ in 2007 that the house had been used as a meth lab. By that time, they had lived there for two years.
The deposition, in which they answered questions from an attorney, explained how they found out:
Question from attorney: “What did you and your wife do following receipt of that letter?”
Slack: “Looked at each other in shock basically. And then I asked my wife to call the Department of Environmental Quality and check into the letter that we received and what it meant for us.”
Question: “Was that the first time you had ever heard of a contaminated property list?”
Question: “And a website?”
The bust occurred in 2002. The contaminated property was not reported to the DEQ until 2007.
After being notified about the house, the Slacks had it tested. Results came back showing high levels of meth.
‘Get back …’
Some of properties on the list in Cascade County, like the one at 1120 25th Ave. N.E. in Black Eagle, are not residential homes.
Bill Kurth remembers a night in April 2011 when about 15 law enforcement vehicles from multiple agencies descended upon a Quonset unit at that address, which is located in a commercial and industrial area in Black Eagle. Kurth has a lawn-care business and stores his equipment next door to the address.
A man dressed up in a protective white suit with a respirator came walking up to him.
“‘Get back, we got a meth lab here,'” the man told Kurth.
For about 24 hours, authorities were inside and materials were being taken out with a front-end loader. Kurth was concerned.
“God almighty, look how close I am,” said Kurth, pointing to the Quonset.
For these properties to be removed from the list, property owners must hire one of 18 certified meth cleanup contractors. Property owners then receive a certificate of fitness from the state.
Because the program is voluntary, property owners can choose not to hire a certified contractor to conduct a cleanup. And the owners may still rent, lease or sell, but they must notify the person renting or buying it’s a meth lab property, Grimm said.
In 2009, a bill failed in the Legislature that would have revised the law to make cleanups mandatory. It also would have required cleanup of homes contaminated with meth smoking, not just those where cooking occurred, Grimm said. As it stands, there is no enforcement provision in the law, meaning if a renter or owner living in a property listed on the website did not receive written notification they would have to pursue legal action on their own.
Bob Murray, owner of Magic Manor Apartments in Great Falls, said cleaning up the aftermath of a meth-cooking operation is “an expensive nightmare.”
“We try to keep a decent place, but sometimes that stuff happens,” Murray said.
In 2001, meth lab busts occurred at two apartments in the complex on 14th Avenue South.
The bust predated the meth cleanup program, and Murray received a letter from the state Department of Justice that the apartments may be contaminated by use of anhydrous ammonia, lithium metal and other unknown substances that “are known to be carcinogenic, corrosive and explosive.”
At the time, Murray said, the state offered no lists of certified cleanup contractors, and he was on his own.
Murray hired Flathead Chemical Lab Cleanup to clean up the apartments.
The cost of the labor, hygienist report and materials came to $12,508.
That included $1,493 in lost rent during the more than two months of cleanup work. The linoleum, carpet and furniture were all thrown out.
“We went the extra mile,” Murray said. “I’d put my kid in there.”
To his frustration, the properties still ended up on the DEQ’s meth contaminated properties.
In 2013, eight years after the cleanup law was passed, and 12 years after the apartments were cleaned up, a DEQ official visited Magic Manor. The purpose was to check whether the apartment had been cleaned up by a certified cleanup company. Murray couldn’t believe it, but he provided the DEQ with the documentation so the properties would be taken off the list.
They were still on the list in 2014, when the Tribune inquired about them. The DEQ’s Grimm said it was an oversight, and the apartments have since been removed from the list.
Tom Tinsen, who lives at 46 Fields Road, thinks authorities went overboard in listing his property as meth-contaminated in 2002. Nobody lives there now, said Tinsen, who offered to give a tour.
At the time, he was letting a person stay in an apartment located in a barn on his property, when that person was busted on a meth-related charge. It was Tinsen who called the sheriff after smelling something funny when he walked by, but “there was not a drop of meth ever cooked in that place,” Tinsen said.
He was amused to see his property in a training video on meth-contaminated properties that was shown at a meeting of a local volunteer firefighting department.
Debbie Helen Kipp-Lucas pleaded guilty to conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine on May 12, 2005, and was sentenced to 97 months in federal prison on Nov. 3, 2005. She also was ordered to pay $4,197 in restitution, which must go toward the cleanup of the property, according to court records.
At the time, Kipp-Lucas was living at 614 12th St. N.
Allen, 39, who once gave speeches about the evils of meth, lives at that same residence today, and she’s not amused her residence is on a list of meth-contaminated properties.
“I’m shocked, really shocked,” she said. “Like I said, I have two kids that live here. I had no clue.”
And she knows Kipp-Lucas.
For three years, she worked for the Great Falls Children’s Receiving Home, which provides temporary shelter for children due to child abuse, neglect, abandonment, parental drug use, domestic violence and parental incarceration. She also worked for Great Falls Pre-Release Services, which provides a cost-effective alternative to incarceration for offenders through a variety of community-based programs. Kipp-Lucas was a resident.
She plans to research whether meth was ever cooked in the basement.
“It’s 10 years ago,” she said. “It shouldn’t still be on list if everything was done right.”
In 2004, a search warrant was conducted at the property and remnants of a meth lab were found in the basement, including a gas generator, paint thinner, cookware and 18 boxes of pseudoephedrine pills, in addition to small baggies used for packing meth and syringes, according to court records.
Meth-making materials may have been found at the location, but that doesn’t mean meth was ever cooked at the location, said Galloway, who owns the rental property.
He’s been frustrated by what he says are a lack of clear guidelines from the state.
“This is where the whole thing falls apart,” Galloway says of the state’s program. “Just because a categorized bust was made, they list my property. So it’s kind of frustrating.”
He also questions why nobody told him the property needed to be cleaned up at the time, if a cleanup really was necessary.
Since learning of the listing, however, he’s contacted the DEQ and a cleanup contractor to check it out. Another sore point is there is no state-certified meth cleanup contractor in Cascade County, where the highest number of meth properties are located.
“To get off the list, I’ll have to pay somebody a fee to do what?” Galloway said. “Nothing?”
The DEQ’s Grimm said the agency tries to notify all landowners when the properties are added to the list, she said, but it’s not required and it can be challenging for properties that predate the creation of the meth cleanup program in 2005.
DEQ records show that the agency did not notify Galloway because it was unable to locate an owner for the property.
Meth properties list