Meth trail: No laws to enforce the cleaning of chemical exposure
One of the largest meth busts in East Baton Rouge Parish history occurred at a Baton Rouge condo on Monday, March 18. But what happens to the home once the investigators are gone and the crime scene is cleared?
Xtreme Cleaner is the private company that was contracted to assist with the removal of the toxic substances. Although they cannot directly speak about Monday’s investigation, the company’s owner did explain the cleaning process and some concerns he has regarding loopholes in Louisiana law.
“Our response varies depending on the agency that contacts us,” Larry Douglas said. “We remove all of the labs and place a sticker on every residence we work that says ‘biohazard.’ It then needs to then be remediated. Then the Sheriff’s Office is responsible for filling out a form for DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality]. That then ends the police or law enforcement obligation.”
This is where the potential problems begin.
“Louisiana does not mandate that the property be remediated,” Douglas explained. “It will not get removed from DEQ’s list until it is remediated. The problem is, people are just pulling down our stickers and moving in and there’s no law to enforce it.”
Living in a home that hasn’t been properly cleaned could cause simple symptoms such as skin irritation, or more complex issues that lead to cancer or possible organ failure.
“We have never found any property where the chemicals go away without cleaning,” Douglas said when asked how long the toxicity will remain. “The house will test positive years later. Everything remains until it’s cleaned.
The Cleaning Process
Extreme Cleaning got into the removal of meth labs in 2010 after being contacted by a local sheriff’s office.
“The federal funding for cleanup ended and the federal contractors they used to use would not wave their fees, so it was an astronomical impact on the sheriff’s office,” Douglas, who is a retired police officer and detective, said. “I had previous training, but then gained more intense training in meth lab and remediation. We started in a couple of parishes and are now used in just about every parish in the state.”
The location of the job will often dictate the amount of work that must be done for the cleanup.
“Some will go in and discover the meth lab components and then have us do the final removal,” he explained. “Others will have us to everything including the removal and photographing of the scene.”
Once the products are removed the owner of the property has to sign off on the final cleaning, because the cost will come out of their pocket. Although some will be protected by insurance, others will not.
“The homeowner is responsible for everything out of pocked other than the removal of the lab,” Douglas explained. “Homeowners insurance is a crapshoot. If it’s a tenant, then it’s probably covered under the smoke damage policy. If not, then they’re able to seek restitution with the suspects as part of their sentencing.”
Cleaning a property doesn’t come cheap. The testing alone costs roughly $700, and that’s completed after the property is scrubbed.
“It starts with the airing out of the property,” he said. “We open up all the doors and use air scrubbers to clean the air. That’s followed by the removal of the contents; the carpeting, curtains, furniture, mattresses, clothing – it’s all removed. Then the remaining items such as TV’s and computers are removed. We then do a triple wash down process using three different chemicals to wash down the walls, ceilings and floors. Then we do an encapsulation using an oil based primer and air it out again.
“After we do our first wash down, we clean the units and the air duct works and that gets wrapped in plastic. If there’s a septic system, that’s a whole different process.”
In all, it could take as little as two weeks or as long as a month to complete.
But is it being done?
In 2012, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) launched a statewide website allowing consumers the ability to view homes that were filed by law enforcement as meth labs. You’ll recall that Extreme Clean assists law enforcement agencies in filling out the form that lands a home on that site. A home cannot be removed from that list until it is cleaned and its toxicity level is tested. Currently there are 20 properties in EBR Parish that are on that list.
That’s where the state’s obligation ends.
“I think the state needs to mandate testing of any property that has had a meth lab in it and not allow anyone to reoccupy the property until it’s been remediated,” Douglas noted. “Just letting a house sit there unoccupied, the chemicals don’t go away on its own.”
The greater concern, however, is not with homes. Rather, it’s found with rental properties and hotels.
“Anything with more than four units is not required to be reported to DEQ,” Douglas said. “There’s nothing to require notification that a meth lab was ever there. Sometimes the health department in that town will condemn the property, but there’s no consistency statewide. If there’s a meth lab in an apartment, most of the time they can peal the sticker off and never clean it.”
Douglas noted that his company has witnessed several hotels that have not gone through the remediation process.
“Keep in mind, these are not five-star hotels,” he said. “We’ve gone to some in Gonzales, Port Allen, and Kenner. For us, there’s not much we can do about it.”
His greater concern, however, are the contents within the domicile.
“In some cases, we’ll be hired by a landlord after a tenant is evicted and the court then allows the tenant to remove their property from the location,” Douglas said. “They then take that contaminated property to a new location and there’s no notification in anyway. They just take it to their next house and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Until stricter laws are created, there’s little that can be done by those who witness the impacts of methamphetamine firsthand. Douglas believes the lack of interest from legislature in creating new laws is due to the financial obligation.
“With the current financial crisis, no one wants to be the one burdened by the cost,” he said. “If everyone follows proper protocol, there’s a lot that needs to be done. I think a lot of people fear that if the laws are put in place to do that, the state is going to have to pay for that cost.”
For now, Douglas focuses his efforts on letting people know that the problem exists.
Education and Awareness
Like a virus, the trail of methamphetamine is left behind in places one would not typically imagine.
“We teach law enforcement and first responders and it’s amazing how their eyes are opened,” Douglas said. “They’ll arrest people and put them in the cruisers and they’ll contaminate their cars without realizing it.”
Many meth addicts will utilize what is known as a shake-and-bake lab, which is easily transportable.
“What they do is use a 20 ounce bottle and they’ll put all the ingredients in a backpack and take them to various locations. Sometimes they’ll blow up and the person will throw it out the window of a car. Then cleanup crews are picking them up without realizing that it’s a volatile substance.”
Because many meth addicts experience extreme paranoia, the ways in which they dispose of their shake-and-bake labs is also a concern.
“They’ll take the items out to a rural area and burn them in piles in yards and it will remain there until something happens. There is no enforcement of that cleanup.”
Douglas is in the early phases of a collaborative effort with Southeastern University to compose a grant proposal addressing the issue of burn piles.
“They’re looking at a grant to get funds for cleaning burn piles to protect our water,” he said.
Burn piles could be anywhere, so for now, Douglas works with various charity and non-profit organizations to educate them on what a burn pile is should they encounter one.
“We train with groups that clean up parks,” he said. “There needs to be a major public service campaign.”
With every group he addresses, Douglas hopes for another ally in the fight for meth remediation laws.