Toxic Shock

Starting a meth lab takes little skill or cash. The cleanup is another story.

She finally did get a call in July 2002. The police were at her house, tearing the place apart. Her grandparent tenants were charged with operating a meth lab. According to the police, Gramps was doing the cooking, and the oldest daughter and a boyfriend had been shoplifting cold pills.

Aquino was stunned, shocked -- poleaxed was what she was, especially when she found out what it was going to cost to get her property back in rentable condition. "I thought I could go in and clean it up myself," she says. "It was made very clear to me that that wasn't going to happen."

When a lab is raided, a private contractor is summoned to dispose of the seized chemicals and equipment. The service is paid for through a federal grant administered by the DEA; last year the feds paid $665,000 for meth-lab cleanups in Colorado, up from $485,000 in 2001. But those funds only cover the removal of the lab itself; the mess that's left behind, the chemicals soaked into carpets and drywall, are the property owner's problem.

Speed cleaning: North Metro Drug Task Force 
commander Lori Moriarty mandated chemical suits for 
meth-lab raiders.
Mark Manger
Speed cleaning: North Metro Drug Task Force commander Lori Moriarty mandated chemical suits for meth-lab raiders.
Broomfield building official Tom Meyers oversees the 
decontamination of meth-tainted property.
Mark Manger
Broomfield building official Tom Meyers oversees the decontamination of meth-tainted property.

Currently, there are no mandatory state standards for cleaning up the labs. Local governments can set their own criteria, imposing the authority they have through nuisance ordinances or other laws to require a certain level of decontamination. In Broomfield, cleanups are the province of the building department, which treats the problem as a housing-code issue.

If anyone had told Broomfield plans analyst Tom Meyers two years ago that he'd be overseeing meth-lab rehabs, "I would have laughed at the idea," he says. But in the past year, his department has supervised six cleanups, ranging in cost from $5,000 to nearly $30,000.

"Every one's a little bit different," Meyers says. "The contamination spread is dependent on two things. One, how long they've been operating in the house: The longer they're there, the more likely they are to move the apparatus around. Two, whether they have a forced-air ventilation system. Cooking near a return-air intake will distribute the contamination throughout the house."

The contaminated properties Meyers has seen range from a new house in Broomfield's upscale Broadland neighborhood to a mobile home scarcely worth the cost of cleaning. ("The owner just hauled it to a landfill," he says.) In several cases, the cook was an adult male living in his parents' house; the parents had to pay for the cleanup while Junior went to jail.

Meyers requires the owners to hire licensed, specially trained remediation firms, which determine the most effective way to clean the house. Generally, that involves airing out the property; removing stained sinks, surfaces, carpets and wallpaper; washing down floors, walls and ceilings; and encapsulating finishes, using paint, epoxy and other sealants to form a barrier against residual contamination. Samples are then tested by an independent lab to see if the cleanup meets acceptable standards for meth residue.

Aquino's house was Meyers's first meth lab. The house sat vacant for six months; Aquino says there were many delays involved in obtaining the city's approval for contractors, test results and procedures. The actual cleanup took only a few days but cost $14,000. Repairing the damage from the raid itself -- busted doors, ripped insulation, damage to the floors from garbage that sat around for weeks while Aquino was barred from entering the house -- cost another $8,000.

Her insurance wouldn't pay for the decontamination. She spent thousands of dollars on attorneys' fees to evict her tenants and seize what property they left behind, but most of it was too contaminated to be of value. "I did get a civil judgment against them, but I won't see a dime of it," she says. "The courts won't enforce it. If they have a job, you can go after them, but I can't find the girls now, and the parents are going to trial next month. This has been devastating for me."

Aquino is now renting her house again. Although the place has been fully cleaned, the stigma remains; she can only attract tenants by charging several hundred dollars less a month than she did before the raid. "When people move in, the neighbors run over and tell them the exciting news about the house," she says. "People hear 'meth lab' and they think there will be gangsters coming by."

Looking back, she doesn't know what she could have done differently; perhaps she could have obtained a special rider on her insurance policy dealing with chemical contamination, but would it hold up in a meth case? "People would be shocked if they knew how vulnerable they are," she says.

Aquino and property owners like her aren't the only ones suffering collateral damage from the labs. Neighbors trying to guard their property values and unwitting tenants who move into a poorly rehabbed former lab have taken hits, too. Gerhardt of Rocky Mountain HIDTA says he knows of at least three lawsuits so far from people who claim to have fallen ill after occupying former meth dens; they're suing the property owners for damages.

One of those suits was filed by Jean Michael, who moved into a townhouse in Estes Park because she hoped the fresh mountain air would help alleviate her asthma. The landlord assured her that the stains in the carpet were from tenants who smoked cigarettes. After Michael started having trouble breathing, she learned that her new home had previously been raided for meth.

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