BOISE — Following a 7 Investigates report last year looking at Idaho’s contaminated meth lab properties law, KTVB asked for more records. The records revealed an issue with the amount of time it’s taken agencies to notify the public that a property shouldn’t be occupied.
The Clandestine Drug Laboratory Cleanup Act was passed in Idaho in 2005. Its purpose was to establish guidelines for keeping potential homebuyers, renters and owners safe by publishing a list of contaminated properties and requiring them to clean-up to get off the list. If listed, the home must be unoccupied.
New records show health officials, public not being notified within legal timeframe
By law, within 72 hours of a meth lab bust in a house, apartment, or mobile home, the agency with jurisdiction over the lab is supposed to report it to the state get it on a contaminated properties list.
“When I get that notification, then I put it online so that the public can be aware of where the meth lab is, and realtors, the public, whoever needs to know,” said Jim Faust, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Idaho Indoor Environment Program Manager.
KTVB obtained all of the police reports for the 42 homes currently on the contaminated homes list. After going through each handwritten report and comparing incident dates with the dates police reports were actually faxed to the state, KTVB could only confirm three of the 42 were definitely filed within the 72 hour timeframe.
More commonly, we found examples where city, county and state agencies around the state took dozens, or even hundreds of days to file.
Homes only publicly listed once police send in the form
For a while, meth-contaminated houses weren’t being listed until the police told the state. In one Idaho Falls case, we found that the police took 728 days to notify Faust, so it was another couple days before it was listed.
More recently, the state has another way to find out about meth labs, and Faust now contacts police if the form doesn’t come in 72 hours.
He now gets alerted when a hazmat crew comes out. He then asks police for the report, though it can still take a while to get the report and list the house. For example, in 2012, a Nampa home wasn’t reported to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare by authorities for 212 days. The property went unlisted from April to November. Nampa Police says the Drug Enforcement Agency files its reports.
“Sometimes we have to push a little bit. We have to make repeated calls,” Faust said. “It’s because they’re very busy, and they don’t work with labs every week on a weekly basis, or even a monthly basis, many times not even a yearly basis, so sometimes it takes several phone calls to get the report.”
Police, health officials say they’ve adapted and reporting is getting better
The fact that police are dealing with home meth labs on a less than regular basis gives a lack of data to report any recent trend. Idaho Department of Health and Welfare happily reports that there was only one lab bust in a home this year.
Some departments have made adjustments since the law went into effect. Boise Police for example say their narcotics unit knows about the requirement and now has one officer tasked with the notification.
The officers who sent late reports for Boise back in 2007 and 2009 don’t work in Boise anymore, so we couldn’t find out why the reports were late.
Is the meth clean-up law really working?
BOISE — Toxic chemicals embedded into walls, soaked into carpet, melted to appliances; that’s what’s left in a home meth lab even after police take out the big containers during a bust. Those leftover chemicals can make people sick if not cleaned up.
To protect people who might rent, buy, or simply want to go back to living inside one of these homes, Idaho legislators passed the Clandestine Drug Laboratory Cleanup Act in 2005. The law says decontaminate the house, or demolish it, or don’t let anyone live there.
Is the law working?
The law gave the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare the authority to establish cleanup standards and maintain a list of residential properties that police say have had a meth lab and need to be cleaned. Since the law went into full effect nearly six years ago, police statewide have busted labs on 58 properties that went on the list.
Only 14 property owners have gone through the state’s cleaning procedure to have anyone live there. That means 44 are still sitting on the list and legally should be unoccupied.
To get off of the list, homeowners must remove all but trace amounts of meth-making chemicals from the property. Things that soak in chemicals, like carpet, have to be thrown out. Health and Welfare estimates the average cost of cleanup is around $5,000, and the cost of testing by a qualified industrial hygienist is around $4,000.
Inside a home meth lab
“It’s a chemical smell. It’s kind of hard to describe it in words, but it’s been described as a cat urine smell type thing. Real pungent,” Boise Police Sergeant Michael Harrington said.
Common chemicals found in meth labs include: Drano, Comet, paint thinner, iodine, matches, pseudoephedrine, antifreeze, lighter fluid and acid. Most of the ingredients have hazardous warning labels on their own, and when combined can be much more dangerous and volatile.
“We always wear the suits with the masks. We never go in there without those,” Harrington said.
Harrington supervises officers who have to go into the dangerous labs and bring out the evidence. The Drug Enforcement Administration says the federal government helps pay for the cost of removing and disposing of the bulk materials. Idaho State Police say the cost of removing the bulk of chemicals can run $800-$8,000 per property.
“It’s all basically removed from the house, but we don’t do any cleaning of the house,” Harrington said.
If the property is left as is, hazardous chemicals stay long after officers leave the property with the big containers of chemicals. Police are not responsible for doing any extensive cleaning on a property; that responsibility rests on the homeowner.
“The stuff that spills in carpets, that’s in the walls behind the stove, because it’s baked on the stove, the walls, the condensation that builds up, that’s all there. And that’s all breathable,” Harrington said.
Properties to be unoccupied until delisted
In 2006, Health and Welfare Idaho Indoor Environment Program Manager Jim Faust was tasked with keeping a list of addresses where police say they’ve found labs. The addresses stay on the do-not-occupy list until Faust reviews industrial hygienist clean-up reports to see if the property is decontaminated.
By law, if an address is one of the 44 on the state’s current list, Faust says the homeowner must clean the property and have it certified by state standards.
“Sometimes they [have to] rip up the carpets. Sometimes they have to take the drywall out. Sometimes they have to take the appliances out. It just varies a lot upon each lab,” Faust said. “To get their property off the list, what they have to do is have the house cleaned up according to state standards. An industrial hygienist then will come in and do wipe samples and send them to a certified lab.”
Faust then reviews the reports to see if the property is sufficiently decontaminated.
People are living in these homes
KTVB checked out nine homes on the list in Canyon and Ada Counties. Doors opened at four homes, proving people are definitely living inside. Three had signs that people could be there. One Nampa apartment still has the police hazardous material sticker on the door from last summer, but a neighbor said she sees people living there. Only two of the nine properties are clearly vacant.
Some of the homes have been on the list for more than five years, and every property owner or renter we made contact with knew the home they live in is on the list. Some of the owners were living there when the lab was found.
Why are they still living there? Why aren’t homeowners going through the cleanup process? A frequent answer was the cost of decontamination testing. The testing can be thousands of dollars, which is steep even for people who say they did extensive cleaning. One homeowner believes her large home could be $12,000-15,000 to test, even though she already paid to gut the entire house.
“I think that what they need to do is take it on a case by case basis as to what happened at the properties because five years later this has come back to haunt me. And I’ve spent $420,000 redoing my home, and now they want us to spend another $15,000 to get it off the list, and I don’t think that really makes sense,” Homeowner Cathy Mascroft said.
‘No punishment, no penalty’
On top of costs, there’s another issue: While it may be against the law to live in a home on the list, Faust confirms there are no punishments or penalties for living in one of these homes. Police say they can’t stop people from living in the homes either.
Senator Denton Darrington (R-Declo) sponsored the bill in 2005 that created the list and gave Health and Welfare the job of maintaining the list. Darrington says the law was created with law enforcement input as well as the concerns of realtors trying to protect homeowners.
KTVB went to him with the current meth lab property list, which he had not seen until the interview, and asked what he thought of people occupying some of the listed homes.
“I’m just interested in what you tell me because I haven’t seen this list before, but no, I guess it’s not surprising people are living there,” Darrington said.
Darrington explained the law was made not only for public safety from hazardous chemicals, but to protect homeowners and buyers. If the owner cleans the house as required, they are immune from civil claims. Also, the list itself, which is publicly available online, tells potential renters and buyers what they’re getting into.
“So far as I know, this has been not only acceptable, but successful. I don’t know that it hasn’t,” Darrington said.
Darrington said he is not inclined to consider changes to the law until police or Health and Welfare say there’s a need.
“I’ve not been approached by those who work in the issues and say we have a problem with the present law. When we have a problem with the present law, we’ll address it,” Darrington said.
Oregon law carries penalties for living in listed homes
Faust said there has been very little talk of making changes to the law, but knowing people are living in potentially dangerous homes, he says he might want to take another look.
“A couple things they could do to improve the law is to have a mandate that they do have it cleaned up and a deadline for it,” Faust said.
Some states do have laws that punish and penalize people for living in homes that aren’t cleaned up and certified. For example in Oregon, state health officials say if the home isn’t cleaned up within six months, it’s listed as a public nuisance. With that, local jurisdictions could choose to sue the property owner.
Also, anyone on the property, even a homeowner, can be arrested for trespassing. If a homeowner is living in the house or rents out the property, there are even more possible penalties including fines and potentially jail time. Oregon Health Authority officials say there have been cases of local sheriff’s offices pulling people out of those homes.
Oregon’s law also requires homeowners to use a licensed contractor to do the cleaning, which Faust points out would raise the cost of completing a cleanup program.
Idaho considering more meth laws
A new meth crackdown bill is moving through the state’s legislature right now and has a committee hearing this week. Senator Joyce Broadsword is sponsoring a bill to help police track pseudoephedrine sales more easily by having pharmacies use an online service to log sales.
“Members of my local law enforcement agencies asked for my help in getting a real time online tracking program in place for Pseudoephedrine sales,” Broadsword wrote in an email. “They expressed frustration at the cost and man power time involved in going from pharmacy to pharmacy to pick up copies of the hand written log books the current law required.”
She says currently meth-cookers will run pharmacy to pharmacy buying the maximum at each store, eventually gathering enough to make a batch of the drug.
“In my part of the state for example, a team looking to gather enough PSE to cook a batch of meth will go to the 6 pharmacies in Sandpoint, 2 in Priest River, the 2 in Oldtown, 2-3 in Newport, Washington, then travel down to Spirit Lake, Rathdrum, Hayden Lake, and CDA sending 2-3 different folks into each pharmacy to purchase the limit. These different communities are all within 45 miles of each other. The deputy showed me examples of the log books with the same names on the same days from several different pharmacies as proof that it is indeed happening,” Broadsword continued.
There will be a hearing in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Thursday.
Federal laws only have voluntary guidelines for cleanup
In 2007, the federal government passed the Methamphetamine Remediation Research Act for the Environmental Protection Agency to create cleanup guidelines. The federal cleanup guidelines are voluntary.
How to test your home for meth contamination
BOISE — Renters and homeowners can take things into their own hands when it comes to finding dangerous meth residue where they live, but if meth is present, things get hard to deal with.
Over the past few months, KTVB has looked at homes where police have busted meth labs. If there’s a bust, there are cleanup requirements and a public list of the properties that have not met state cleanup standards.
There are homes that will not be on that list on the list, either because police didn’t find the lab, or there was meth use, but no lab. If a home isn’t on that list, it’s tough for renters or potential buyers to find out the home’s drug history.
Renter: ‘I was dizzy’
Last year, Helen Leeper moved into a duplex in Boise. Already dealing with the auto-immune disease lupus, Leeper says her health got worse once in the home.
“When I got in there, after the second week, I had hives,” renter Helen Leeper said. “My labs started getting weird, and I had shortness of breath, and I was dizzy.”
She says her doctor didn’t have any answers. Leeper could not figure out what was making her sick. A conversation with a neighbor steered her suspicions toward possible drug contamination.
“I had no idea what was going on. One day I was talking to the neighbors and they said, you know the people that lived in there used to do meth? And the bells went off,” Leeper said.
Symptoms of meth chemical exposure
Meridian St. Luke’s emergency room Doctor Mark Urban confirms exposure to chemicals found in meth can cause a variety of symptoms. In addition, the elderly, very young, and those with pre-existing conditions can have worse reactions.
“A lot of them are volatile chemicals that when exposed to the skin or inhaled can cause some pretty significant problems,” St. Luke’s Meridian ER Doctor Mark Urban said. “Some of the chemicals in particular that are used, [such as] the hydrochloric acid as well as anhydrous ammonia, those can cause some pretty significant burns onto the skin and irritation on the skin, as opposed if they are inhaled, pretty significant damage to the lungs, respiratory tract.”
A $50 test confirms suspicion
Armed with a new suspicion from her neighbors, Leeper talked to Jim Faust at the Department of Health and Welfare He gave advice he tells many renters who call asking about possible meth contamination. The recommendation is a kit from this Salt Lake City company.
“They can order wipe samples for about $50, that includes that lab analysis. Then they can wipe down some of the walls in their apartment, then put them back in an envelope, send them back to the lab and then they get an entire analysis for meth or any other drugs that they pick,” Faust said.
Leeper’s results showed there was meth where she lived. Her lab results were explained to show her contamination was at a level 11 times higher than Idaho law would require known meth lab properties to get to, in order to re-occupy. Leeper showed Faust her results, but she got a surprising reaction.
“I about fell on the floor, and he said, yeah ‘those results are really high, but there’s nothing we can do’,” Leeper said.
Idaho law does not require landlord cleanup unless there’s a lab bust
Faust says there are no laws on the book to protect renters like Leeper from meth contaminated homes, and there is no cleanup responsibility. The only laws are for homes where police have busted an actual lab.
“For meth use, not a meth lab, there’s no state standards on cleanup,” Faust said. “There’s no responsibility in regards for the landlords for getting that cleaned up. We do hope they would clean it up, they would take it seriously.”
Leeper told her landlord about the results she got, and about a month later, found a new place to live. She says her symptoms slowly decreased.
“After I got moved out, it took six weeks for my brain functions to come back and for the hives to clear away,” Leeper said.
Landlord cleaned home, had new tests done
KTVB spoke with landlord of the duplex that tested positive for meth. Even though he is not required to do so, he said he spent thousands of dollars doing extensive cleaning and had more tests done that came back clean.
Again, Idaho law actually does not require a landlord to do anything if we’re talking meth contamination because of drug use. This landlord said he was shocked at how lax the state’s laws are for cleaning up drug residue.
How to test your home
ALS Environmental in Salt Lake City is the company the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare recommends people use for a preliminary and relatively inexpensive test. Those interested in a kit can call the company at 1-800-356-9135. They can ship a kit for $5.00 and then the analysis runs $45.00. The results come via email.
To see the instructions that come with the kit to get an idea of how it works, click here.
Cleaning up a former meth lab
Earlier this year, the 7 Investigation team knocked on the doors of several Treasure Valley homes on a meth property list where, legally, no one is supposed to live until they are properly cleaned.
We found people living in some. Others were unoccupied, like the apartment in this story. Over the past few months, KTVB followed the owner’s costly quest to get off the list of homes that are made unlivable because of former meth labs.
It’s a little yellow apartment building, right on a main street in Nampa’s northside. A little yellow apartment building, marked with a bright yellow warning sign.
“I left that on there because I wanted everybody to know, ‘Hey, if you’re coming in, this is dangerous stuff. It could be bad,’” said homeowner Debbie Johnson.
Johnson bought the apartment building in 2004 as a real estate investment. She hoped it would be a bright spot in a rough part of town.
“I thought, yeah, this just needs clean up and paint,” Johnson said. “So I thought.”
One of her tenants was busted for meth last summer.
“He did his cooking right back here,” Johnson said, indicating one part of the house. “He put his chemicals in Coke bottles, and there were toddlers around. Can you imagine?”
Now, she’s dealing with a building she can’t rent out, because of something she knew nothing about.
‘I don’t even know how to smoke a cigarette!” Johnson said. But instead of throwing in the towel, Johnson decided to push through and get off the do-not-occupy list.
On one March day, Johnson had a professional duct cleaner in. This, after she scrubbed, repainted and pulled up the carpet.
The company cleaned out the vents, which could be spreading meth residue.
Then, later that month, what was dubbed “the final wipe down,” scrubbing the whole building, top to bottom and left to right. Her church, the Christian Faith Center North Campus, volunteered to help.
“I couldn’t do this,” Johnson said. “I’m just a single person. I couldn’t get this all cleaned up.”
The church’s leader has a special — and unexpected — connection to this neighborhood.
“This was one of my main spots. I was a drug dealer on the northside here,” Pastor Jordan Hodges said. “When I was 18 years old actually, I had a grand jury indictment for selling meth here in Nampa that I was prosecuted for and went to prison for.”
The former dealer- turned-pastor and his church members are determined to get Johnson’s house off the list. Not only that, they want to turn it into something for the community – a place where the church can keep donations to give to community members in need.
“I think big change starts with little steps,” Hodges said. “You know, one thing at a time.”
From a little yellow apartment marked with meth by a bright yellow sign, to a little yellow apartment marked with hope by a bright — and clean — future.
“When I first walked in, there was just kind of a thought that birthed inside me and that thought was ‘from a dope house, to a hope house,’” Hodges said.
But to get to that hope house, this process needs to end with no dope.
‘I mean, just a trace amount and you can’t get off the list,” Johnson said. “So, hoping I did it right. We’ll find out. But yes, I’m nervous!”
Idaho’s law says homeowners can do the clean-up themselves.
Even using mostly volunteer labor and a carefully budgeted plan, Johnson has personally spent $3,000 or $4,000 and will pay almost a $1,000 more for certified testing.
We’re still waiting to hear what her results are.