GOSHEN — Some Goshen-area homes are standing vacant. On a window or door is taped the reason why. “Unfit for human habitation,” states fluorescent pink health department notices.
The notices are gaudy reminders of how prevalent methamphetamine addiction is in local communities.
Besides the human toll of broken families, incarceration and wrecked lives, the drug has made many houses and mobile homes unsafe to enter.
“It’s terrible,” said Jeff Roberts, who lives across the street from 405 1/2 E. Jefferson St. in Goshen. “I’m buying this house. I’ve been here almost 10 years and I’m not going to leave. I don’t know if it (the neighboring house) will get fixed up or not.”
Roberts sat under a shade tree in his front yard, where the pink health department warning sign across the street was clearly visible.
“I remember when it happened and saw the men wearing their little white suits when they rolled up to get rid of the meth,” Roberts said. “It’s a terrible drug.”
The Jefferson Street structure was condemned Oct. 29, 2014 after the Indiana State Police Clandestine Laboratory made a report of a methamphetamine lab at the residence. The lab was one of 53 labs seized in Elkhart County last year, according to Indiana State Police information. The county had the fifth-most meth lab seizures in the state.
Also at the top of the seizure lists were Kosciusko County with 58 and Noble County with 57. LaGrange County had just nine seizures reported by ISP.
Records found at http://www.in.gov/meth listed the seizure at the Jefferson Street residence as a one-pot lab. The items found inside the house included a chemical stew of hydrochloric acid gas generator, flammable solvents, water reactive metal-lithium, anhydrous ammonia, corrosive acid, corrosive base and ammonium nitrate/sulfate.
The occurrence listings on the locations map on the Indiana State Police’s clandestine lab website date from 2007 when the department first started reporting the numbers, according to Sgt. Katrina Smith, ISP southern supervisor.
According to the clandestine location map, since 2007 there have been 85 occurrence reports listed within the boundaries of the Goshen reporting area, 78 reports in Bristol, Middlebury and Shipshewana, and 68 reports including LaGrange and Howe.
Smith said the popularity of the methamphetamine labs “exploded” around 2004 when the one-pot method or “shake and bake” method came into use.
“People didn’t have to go to drug dealers to get their drugs, they could make their own,” Smith said. “They can put everything in a backpack or a small tote and take it with them with the one-pot method.”
Smith described meth as a central nervous system stimulant.
“Meth has been used for some medical purposes, but there are very minute quantities used for such medicinal purposes,” she said. “What we see on the streets is not used for that purpose. The ease for cooking and obtaining chemicals make it readily available. It’s a win-win for the bad guys.”
A second house
Another listing found on the ISP clandestine website includes a residence at 219 N. Second St. in Goshen that was seized Oct. 9, 2014.
Next-door neighbor Tommy Stover, who was home at the time of the raid, said he recalled seeing “cops everywhere” and being “surprised” finding out later there were two meth labs at the residence.
“I never realized they had a lab inside the house and one outside in the shed,” Stover said. “There had been a few disturbances and a lot of comings and goings but they all seemed fairly friendly. I never had a problem. They basically were good neighbors.”
Stover said he’s lived in the 200 block of North Second Street for almost 25 years and had never had any encounters with a meth lab in the neighborhood.
“I can’t be judgmental on who it was. It could have been anybody living there,” he said.
After a house has been identified as having a meth lab by law enforcement, the ISP response team removes bulk chemicals and drug-making paraphernalia and posts a sticker placard indicating the property has been the location for a lab, according to Sgt. Mike Toles, northern supervisor for ISP’s methamphetamine suppression section.
“We notify the county health department, local fire department and make a hotline report to Child Protective Services if children are at the residence,” Toles said. “The county health department issues and posts an ‘unfit for human habitation’ order. Elkhart County has been very proactive in condemning houses long before other counties had protocols and procedures.”
Toles said the ISP clandestine lab team is no longer involved after the ISP cleans up the lab.
“It’s out of our hands then,” Toles said. “Once the residence has been cleaned up, it can be removed from the unfit for human habitation order. I feel strongly about the structures and vehicles that are involved. There can be high costs and costs can be extensive. I’ve been told that insurance will sometimes cover the costs and sometimes it will not cover it.”
Cost and coverage
According to Bill Baxter, environmental scientist for Kosciusko County, the actual cost of a meth lab cleanup varies according to each case.
He said the property owner receives information from the local health department on how to proceed with the cleanup and has to hire a qualified inspector before any work is done.
“The homeowner is responsible for the cleanup. It’s hard to put a finger on the costs,” Baxter said. “It depends on the rooms and the heating, ventilating and air conditioning system in the structure. It depends on the type of surfaces. Soft materials absorb the chemicals and soft surfaces like drywall, Sheetrock and paint, are harder to clean. If it gets in the HVAC system, the duct work has to be torn apart to clean.”
Trailers and mobile homes can be hauled off cheaper than the value of the structure compared to the cost of a cleanup, Baxter added.
“If the structure is demolished, those places have to be tracked where the material is taken to,” he said.
Baxter said he requires a certificate of decontamination by a contractor, who submits the certificate in order to lift the condemnation of the structure.
“Only then do we free up the property,” he said. “I’ve been told insurance can cover a cleanup and if it happens again a second time, it won’t cover it at all. The insurance company doesn’t take a hit a second time.”
Molly Livengood, an insurance agent with American Family Insurance in Goshen, said the determination for claims is handled on an individual basis.
“It depends on what happened and who it was,” Livengood said. “Each case is individual. The claims are turned over to the insurance adjuster.”
After a residence has been removed from the contamination list, the homeowner can put the structure on the housing market, according to Emmon Schmucker, a Realtor and auctioneer.
“I have seen (a residence) on the market at times, but not a lot lately,” Schmucker said.
“Realtors have access to the clandestine website, but I haven’t dealt with it a lot.”
Schmucker said he sees a lot of vacant lots, parking lots and parking spaces that have been reported on the website.
“In the past, there were more cooking meth labs inside homes,” Schmucker said. “It seems to have moved from residential homes and seems to have moved outside. People don’t want the smell and chemicals inside their house and create a hazardous condition.”
Such an outside meth cooking location was discovered by police Feb. 4 near Keystone Drive and Ashburn Road in Goshen, which is the location for several medical facilities, according to an ISP meth lab report. The lab was in a vehicle with flammable solvents found in the trunk and there were no children involved at the location.
Sgt. Toles said he has seen plenty of heartache befalling the people involved in meth labs.
“It’s a big mess and hopefully someday before I retire, there will be no more meth labs,” Toles said, shaking his head. “I can only hope.”