Are you living in a meth house?
Not all seizures led to cleanups, including 51 on Westside since 2001
Throughout Colorado, reports are that the scourge of methamphetamine is on the wane. This includes Colorado Springs, where the number of meth-lab seizures per
year has totaled 30 over the past four years, compared with 359 for the previous four.
The Westside's numbers are similar: 3, preceded by 52.
So is the problem solved? Only part of it, based on interviews with area police, real estate and health officials. The criminals who “cooked” the addictive pleasure drug may be in jail and their operations stymied, but they left behind a poisonous legacy. Like land mines after a war, many of the houses and apartment units that were transformed into meth labs - their interior walls, floors and ceilings permeated with meth chemicals - have never been cleaned up.
Beyond that, unknown numbers of those residences are still being lived in, despite concerns at the state and county level about the health risks for those who do so. On the Westside alone, according to research from Colorado Springs Police Department data, there are 51 addresses that have never been mitigated of their meth fallout. Plus, there's no telling how many houses may have had meth labs, but police never caught them, asserted Sgt. Bob McDonald, the Metro Vice and Narcotics Investigation (VNI) official who specializes in meth issues. “It's a nightmare,” he said. “People don't know the problems it [meth use] has caused. These houses are everywhere.”
Although Metro VNI lists on its website all of the bust locations that remain “unmitigated,” the information is not necessarily known by all who might benefit. For example, 1726 W. Colorado Ave. was seized as a meth lab in 2002, according to the police website, and never cleaned up. But renters were living there until a short time before a fire broke out in December, causing an estimated $140,000 damage. On top of that, the firefighters who fought that blaze were ignorant of the building's meth history, according to Cathy Prudhomme of the Fire Department, and thus were not wearing hazardous material gear.
El Paso County officials, including Westside commissioner Sallie Clark, had helped lead an effort for state legislation in 2004 which set a specific methamphetamine cleanup standard and allowed the creation of an El Paso County Health program to encourage and oversee mitigation efforts. However, the program had to be eliminated last year as part of the county commissioners' budget-balancing cutbacks. “Here I am,” a frustrated Clark said in a recent interview, “the very person who worked on the legislation, and I'm the commissioner facing the budget cuts that prevents us from regulating it.”
For McDonald, what the cutback means for Metro VNI is that “we're stuck between a rock and a hard place. We go out and condemn them and put up the signs that say 'unfit for habitation,'” but that's where it stops. When the county program was functional, “I'd forward the information to the Health Department and they'd make sure the property was cleaned properly.” Now, he said, “Probably the first two hours of my day is returning calls from people wondering how to get their house cleaned up. I feel bad for them, but there isn't much that we [Metro VNI] can do.”
But there appears to have been a built-in problem with the '04 law: It only triggered action on properties that were busted after it passed. So all those seizures that occurred before the law - during the heyday of local meth cooking - can only be found if someone looks for them. Terry Brunette, an inspector with the Regional Building Department, took the initiative to create a list with all the unmitigated Metro VNI addresses. This could be a safeguard if the owner of one of the properties seeks to pull a building permit; but otherwise, the only folks aware of it will be the “people that know the system and how to check on things,” Brunette said.
There is an automatic “blacklist” for any properties that have been busted after the '04 law passed, and, if unmitigated, that fact must be disclosed to potential buyers or renters, explained Clarissa Arellano, government affairs director of the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors. “That's exactly why we worked on that law,” she said. “In the real-estate industry, we get blamed for a lot of things, and it was we who worked on the disclosure law.”
However, there's no telling how many agents are aware of the unmitigated residences from the busts that occurred before the law passed. “If the Realtor knows, they have to disclose it,” she said. “But you can't expect them to have a magic 8-ball.”
Westside developer Mark Cunningham, who has owned 1726 W. Colorado Ave. for 21 years and rented it all along, was not happy about finding out about its unmitigated status from a news reporter. He said no city official had ever informed him of the meth bust in 2002. “I don't even know who was living there then,” he said.
Such a situation is not that surprising. Two other Westside addresses on the unmitigated list have been busted twice (15 N. 25th, in 2003 and 2008; and 2422 Busch Ave. #26, in 2003 and 2004). Before the state law, “there were no laws in effect mandating that people clear the premises or clean up after a meth-lab bust,” McDonald pointed out. “Unfortunately, any lab we seized earlier still has to meet the requirements for cleanup.”
Nor is it cheap. Jim Goodwin, who owns several Westside properties, found that out to his dismay a few years ago when he bought a parcel, only to discover it had been a meth house. Facing costs of up to $30,000 to mitigate - which typically involves gutting the interior and requires a certification from an industrial hygienist - he is still sitting on the property. Tearing the building down would be his only other option.
Four years ago, Goodwin actually donated the use of a non-polluted house on Ehrich Street (in the Midland area) so that area law enforcement personnel in haz-mat suits could run a controlled study of the health risks of meth cooking on the interior of a building. (Afterward, as part of the agreement with Goodwin, the city intentionally burned the house down, and Goodwin built new dwellings on the site.)
According to County Health fact sheets, cooking a batch of meth most commonly involves ephedrine or pseudoephedrine as the primary ingredient. That's why over- the-counter cold and asthma medications aren't available on the aisle shelves in stores anymore; meth addicts would steal the stuff to for their chemical brew. Making the stuff results in byproducts of “potentially flammable extraction process sludges, phosphine gas, hydriodic acid, hydrogen chloride gas, phosphoric acid, and yellow or white phosphorus,” the county fact sheet states, adding that “people who enter a meth lab before it has been properly cleaned and ventilated may experience headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, lack of coordination, burns and even death.”
The word “may” also appears frequently in the Colorado Health Department study supporting the '04 legislation - an indication that precise definitions of health risks from meth labs remain elusive. As McDonald noted, “We don't know what the long-term effects are.” Still, Colorado is not the only state to set meth cleanup standards.
There are also health-related anecdotes. They aren't pretty. McDonald said he'd recently heard about a man and his mother who unknowingly bought a former meth house. She came down with “all kinds of health problems, and so they lost the house,” McDonald said. “And now the bank owns a house it can't sell.”
He also related that “there are plenty of people [who just bought a house] who call me and say they've gotten sick or just found out. A neighbor came by and said, 'Did you know your house was a meth lab?'”
The '04 state study spoke about the effects of meth cooking on living spaces: “Methamphetamine production is associated with the release of numerous chemicals, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), acids, bases, metals and chemical salts, in addition to methamphetamine itself. Specific chemical residues may vary depending on the cooking process that is utilized. Airborne contaminants are absorbed or deposited onto surfaces such as rugs, furniture, drapes, and walls and may also enter and contaminate heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Chemical spills are not uncommon and may also impact residential surfaces. Presence of these chemicals may pose a health risk to residents who reoccupy these structures after seizure.”
Babies are a particular concern in the reoccupation of unmitigated homes because they are likely to play on the floor, wearing less clothes and often putting their fingers in their mouths, the state study reports.
So what are responsible home buyers or renters to do? As a first step, McDonald urged anyone thinking of buying or renting to look at the addresses in the Metro VNI “unmitigated” website (which can be accessed by linking to the Police Department from the city's www.springsgov.com, then clicking on the “CSPD Maps” option). The map's list (as of March 11) appears on Page 7 of this issue of the Pioneer.
The list is kept up to date, McDonald said. “Once I find out a house has been properly mitigated, I take it off the list. After that, I can't disclose it ever was on it.”
Westside Pioneer article