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September 25, 2007

Savage meth: Day 3: Hidden time bombs

It was one of Lexington County’s most hazardous home meth labs, complete with a bathtub full of a weird pink liquid.

It was one of Lexington County’s most hazardous home meth labs, complete with a bathtub full of a weird pink liquid.

“It could have blown up — that’s how dangerous it was,” said Sheriff James Metts, as officers in hazmat suits went in and out of the Gaston house in June while neighborhood children stood well back and watched.

Two months later, a neighbor said the empty house still reeked of foul chemicals.

Neighbors likely will never know what contaminants might still be inside.

Still, those neighbors know more than many other S.C. residents — at least they are aware there was a meth lab there.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control doesn’t know where all the state’s meth sites are. And it doesn’t tell the public about the ones it does know about.

That’s despite the fact that since 2001, nearly 900 meth labs have been discovered in South Carolina — in houses, motel rooms, apartments, sheds and private vehicles, according to local law enforcement officials and federal drug agents.

All, including the more than 180 found in Lexington County alone, are potential environmental hazards.

That’s because meth labs in South Carolina get only a cursory cleaning.

DHEC plays virtually no role in cleaning up meth lab contamination — leaving property owners, neighbors, local authorities and potential property buyers or renters in the dark about whether the sites are safe.

Unlike many other states, where environmental departments take a much more active role, DHEC:

 Doesn’t know where all the sites are; there is no formal communication about meth sites between DHEC and local sheriffs and police, who do know where the sites are

 Doesn’t warn the public even when it does know of a site

 Doesn’t clean up meth lab sites itself, nor does it hire specialists to clean up sites

 Does no site inspection after a site has been cleaned up by others; the state has no standard for what constitutes a “clean” site.

State Rep. Joan Brady, R-Richland, said DHEC should act to protect and inform the public.

“If they don’t do it, who will? Certainly not the meth dealers. This is public health,” said Brady, who has worked to pass laws to help halt the meth plague.

Meanwhile, toxicity can linger from a witches’ brew of chemicals.

“Contamination can stay one year, two years, three years — we don’t really know how long,” said nationally recognized meth exposure expert John Martyny, associate professor of the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Colorado.

Although DHEC has done little to inform S.C. residents of meth lab dangers, its own waste officials know its perils.

Asked when a motel room that once had been a meth lab would be considered clean enough for his family to stay in, DHEC hazardous waste expert Steve Burdick had a one-word answer:

“Never.”

DHEC ON NOTICE

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration said it has notified DHEC over several years about the location of numerous S.C. meth labs.

If the DEA is involved with a site, it sends DHEC a certified letter with the site’s address, according to John Ozaluk, head of the DEA in South Carolina.

“This letter serves as a warning that there may still be hazardous substances and wastes at or on the property,” a sample DEA letter to DHEC says.

“It puts DHEC on notice,” Ozaluk said.

DHEC waste officials, however, said they had received only a handful of such letters since 2002. They acknowledge they did not pass that information along to the public.

DHEC chief Earl Hunter, who helps set priorities for his agency, would not discuss why it does little to respond to a well-documented environmental threat. He issued a two-paragraph statement that said in part that the state has no cleanup standards because the federal government has no such standards:

“We are doing our part by determining the best approach to protect the state’s environment from the wastes left behind by the cooking process. Without any national standards for guidance, our work in this matter is more difficult.”

Hunter referred all other questions to DHEC site assessment section manager Jonathan McInnis, who also noted the lack of federal — and state — environmental laws concerning meth.

The agency is developing a process to quickly check each lab site for pollutants that come within DHEC’s jurisdiction — generally outdoors, McInnis said.

And DHEC has an internal group that discusses ways to deal with meth poisons, McInnis said. It hopes someday to publish meth lab guidelines and information on its Web site, he said.

In some cases, DHEC has worked with property owners on meth lab cleanups, he said. But basically, he said, DHEC does not take action on pollution that happens inside a house or hotel.

And, “by far, the majority (of labs) are in private residences or their outlying buildings, like a garage,” said the DEA’s Ozaluk.

Existing state laws don’t permit DHEC to test inside houses, McInnis said. The agency probably would need new authority from the General Assembly to get fully involved in the meth lab problem, he said.

If DHEC learned of contamination in soil or water at a site, the agency would require cleanup by the property owner, he said.

DHEC decided to investigate the Gaston site, at 225 Transom Court, after officials read about it in The State and because a neighbor had complained. McInnis said ground samples for testing will be taken outside the house but probably not inside it, where law officers said the pollution was.

Absent state leadership, counties say they do what they can to get the word out about dangers at former meth labs.

In Lexington County, for example, a sheriff’s spokesman said his department sends a letter to property owners warning them of the dangers. But the county sent no written notification to the owner of the Transom Court house. Officials instead said they told her orally about her house.

“It was devastating,” the property owner said in an interview last week. The woman, a widow in her 80s, lives elsewhere. She did not know about the lab, authorities said.

The woman said she wished she had more information about what to do about her house. She said she has been so upset by the incident she hasn’t even called her insurance company to see how the house could be restored.

“I don’t know anything,” she said.

In the city of Columbia, city codes require the owner to bring the property up to a “clean and sanitary” condition, as certified by professional cleaners.

In Greenville County, the Sheriff’s Department places a legal notice, similar to a lien, on the property’s deed in the register of deeds office. This notifies a potential buyer the property has been contaminated.

But McInnis said the state lacks a uniform, coordinated approach to cleaning up meth labs.

“In an ideal world, the sheriff might call SLED (the State Law Enforcement Division), who would call DEA, and at some point, we would get the memo. Everybody would be in the loop.”

METH LAB DANGERS

Chemicals to make meth can ruin lungs, burn skin, blind eyes, and damage kidneys. The chemicals can explode or catch fire, cause cancer and birth defects.

Most labs are run by amateur “cooks” who oversee a hodgepodge of pots, glass beakers, propane tanks and chemicals, from muriatic acid to phosphine.

Meth addicts like making meth for themselves and for others. That way, they avoid the risk of buying from a street dealer.

But with each batch cooked, contamination gets worse.

“You have a lot of chemicals, including meth, that get released into the air and travel through the house,” Martyny said. “Even though doors are closed, you end up with several rooms contaminated.”

Meth’s aerosol fumes can soak into carpets, walls, rugs, drapes and air ducts, Martyny said.

“Even walking on the carpet moves the chemicals around,” he said.

Experts say poisons also can linger in air ducts and drywall.

And there’s lots of waste.

“For every pound of meth made, there’s an average of five to seven pounds of chemical waste,” said Michael Miller, director of the Anderson-Oconee Regional Forensics Laboratory and a member of the Anderson County Sheriff’s Department.

Waste includes fumes created during a meth “cook” — fumes that can be harmful.

“If you can smell chemicals, you are being exposed,” said Miller, who also is president of Clandestine Laboratory Investigating Chemists Association.

Meth fumes may irritate the throat or destroy lung tissue or kill you, depending on the concentration, said Miller, who has investigated 500 Upstate labs.

Another wrinkle in the meth lab phenomenon is mobile meth labs — in cars or vans.

On Aug. 17, Lexington County deputies stopped a Chevy Blazer near Pelion that contained a meth lab. Deputies charged three people with operating the lab.

In early April in Columbia, a car that likely contained meth chemicals exploded in the 200 block of Harden Street near Rosewood Drive, according to a Richland County Sheriff’s Department report. April 10, sheriff’s deputies raided a nearby apartment at 224 Harden St., arresting four people in their 20s on charges of manufacturing meth. Deputies found numerous chemicals and lab equipment, the report said.

Mobile labs frighten law enforcement officers: They mean meth isn’t limited to rural areas.

The Harden Street address is surrounded by single-family homes and dozens of apartments that are home to USC college students. And it’s blocks from businesses and major traffic arteries.

HOW CLEAN IS ‘CLEAN’?

No state or federal agency requires a complete cleanup of meth sites in South Carolina.

The DEA is at the scene of many meth raids but admits its contractors only do superficial cleanups.

“We just get the stuff used to make meth,” the DEA’s Ozaluk said. “We don’t get runoff that boils over on the stove, the stuff that seeps into the carpet or gets on fabrics, furniture, draperies and toys.”

DEA contractors take waste to authorized hazardous waste dumps, Ozaluk said.

But “once we leave with the evidence, we don’t do any follow-up of whether the house or trailer or motel room has been cleaned up,” Ozaluk said.

Only specialized contractors doing a thorough job can fully detoxify a house, experts say.

Since 2001, the DEA has spent $2.5 million to hire contractors to partially clean 875 S.C. meth labs, an average of $2,857 per site.

The number of S.C. meth labs has declined in the past two years, in part because of limits on the purchase of key ingredients. But the cost of cleanups was the highest it has ever been in fiscal years 2005 and 2006 — more than a half-million dollars each year.

Once it is finished with a site, the DEA tries to warn the public.

The agency publishes a list of meth lab addresses, including some in South Carolina, on its national Web site. DHEC has no such list, online or otherwise.

But the DEA list isn’t perfect:

 It does not reveal whether the address is a house, motel or other structure.

 It is not complete. For 2005-2006, for example, it had 29 addresses in Lexington County. But the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department reported finding 54 labs during those two years.

 DEA addresses are not always accurate. For example, the list says that on Jan. 28, 2005, a meth lab was found at 2220 S. Ocean Blvd. in North Myrtle Beach. The actual address was 2200 S. Ocean Blvd., according to a city police spokesman.

Ozaluk said the DEA’s list is incomplete because local police agencies don’t tell the agency about all labs. And typographical errors are always possible, he said.

Other states make a more concerted effort than South Carolina to alert residents. Some also establish cleanup procedures and standards:

 The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources has a 47-page document on decontamination and reoccupation guidelines for contaminated structures. The State’s SBI — the counterpart to South Carolina’s SLED — has taken a lead role in cleanups.

 California keeps a database of meth lab addresses. Its environmental agency has data about meth lab dangers on its Web site. Residents also can learn what poisons were at each site.

 The state of Washington’s health department publishes lab addresses on its Web site.

 Michigan requires contaminated meth property to remain vacant until decontaminated. The state publishes an Internet registry disclosing meth lab addresses and the cleanup status of each.

 Colorado requires a seller of property to disclose whether a property has ever been the site of a meth lab.

In February, U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., helped pass a bill out of the House that would give the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the National Academy of Sciences $5 million over two years to do studies and establish standards on meth lab pollution.

The bill is now in the Senate.

GOVERNMENT RESPONSE

In 2006, the S.C. General Assembly passed a law that has sharply cut down on the spread of meth labs.

Richland County’s Brady spearheaded its passage, with some lobbying help from law enforcement officials statewide.

Brady become interested in the meth problem after a high school student in her district, Anna Henderson, asked her to do something about it.

“It was a sleeper issue,” Brady said.

The DEA’s Ozaluk invited Brady to conferences where state law officers and environmental and social workers discussed the meth plague. She was shocked at the scope of the problem.

Brady’s initiative limited the sale of the decongestants ephedrine and pseudoephedrine to three packages per customer. It also required buyers to show a picture ID with an address and sign a store logbook.

The law went into effect without Gov. Mark Sanford’s signature. He said its intentions were commendable but that it invaded the privacy of law-abiding customers. He wrote: “This legislation punishes the innocent for the deeds of the guilty.”

But Ozaluk, Attorney General Henry McMaster and SLED Chief Robert Stewart all give Brady’s law credit for cutting down on meth labs.

The law works because meth users and cooks are often paranoid, Ozaluk said. “The fact that they have to show some form of ID and sign a register scares them off,” he said.

The state law makes it possible for state police and courts — in addition to federal officials — to monitor ephedrine and pseudoephedrine purchases, Ozaluk said.

This year, Brady is pushing a bill that would require the owner of a house that has been the site of a meth lab to disclose that to a potential buyer. The bill is stalled in the House Judiciary Committee.

Nick Kremydas, chief executive officer of the S.C. Association of Realtors, said his group favors disclosure. But “we would want a method of certifying the property is clean so we could put it on the market.” South Carolina would have to develop decontamination standards, as some other states have, he said.

Brady said DHEC or some state agency should publish meth lab addresses, just like sex offenders’ addresses.

“Why shouldn’t you have an Internet place where you put in a ZIP code and find out if there’s been a meth lab in your neighborhood?” she said.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344. Reach Beam at (803) 771-8405.

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