The Meth Problem in Montana: Are Meth Homes in Montana Getting Cleaned Up?
You think you’re looking at your dream home. It’s affordable, needs a little TLC, but looks like a solid fixer-upper. But what you can’t see – the former residents cooked methamphetamine in the kitchen, and the house is thoroughly contaminated by the drug’s toxic residue.
Or you rent a nice hotel room for the night – with no knowledge that meth was cooked up in the drip coffee maker.
To many in Montana, meth use is largely invisible. Small-time manufacturers create the drug out of their homes, mostly for their own use. The rising meth problem is a crime story in the local newspaper, or a gritty, disturbing ad on television.
But for renters and home buyers, the drug can have a devastating impact long after it has been made and consumed. The toxic chemicals used to cook meth leave a home, motel room, or rental property unsafe for future residents – who often don’t know about the home’s past.
There are countless recipes for manufacturing methamphetamine, but most involve either over-the-counter cold medications or large quantities of agricultural chemicals. In the process, toxic chemicals, vapors and solvents are left behind.
According to a national law enforcement research agency, each pound of meth results in about five pounds of toxic waste, a deadly mix that often gets dumped outside, washed down sinks, or left as dangerous vapors and residue materials.
The health effects from exposure to these chemicals are significant: As the Washington state health department reports, the chemicals left by meth manufacturing can cause a wide range of health problems, ranging from dizziness or lethargy to long-term birth defects or organ failure, depending on the length of exposure.
Montana legislators haven’t ignored the problem – they tackled the issue in the last Legislative session, creating the Meth Cleanup Program under House Bill 60.
Modeled after similar bills in other states, it created a meth hot list – 250 residences busted by law enforcement for meth manufacturing since 1997.
The program also, for the first time, created verifiable standards for cleaning contaminated residences. In October, staff trained and certified a handful of Montana contractors to conduct cleanup work.
Under the law, in order to get their property off the list, owners of the contaminated properties must hire one of the state’s certified contractors, said Program Coordinator Deb Grimm.
Some landlords and property owners didn’t even realize their property was involved in a prior bust before they received notice they were on the list, Grimm said.
“A lot of times they bought the home and didn’t know there was a lab there,” she said.
Grimm hopes that the program will eventually expand to cover smoking meth – not just manufacturing it.
Samples in homes where meth was smoked have tested at 300 times the legal state contaimation limit, according to Grimm.
“The residue is not breaking down,” she said. “It doesn’t biodegrade, and it remains for years.”
The cleanup program is a good start, according to law enforcement officers and health officials. But it still has a long way to go to solve the issue of meth-contaminated homes in Montana – and to spread the word that the problem exists.
For one, property owners aren’t actually required to follow through with the cleanup – they also have the option of simply notifying future tenants that their home is listed as contaminated.
Ravalli County Undersheriff Kevin McConnell worries that cash-strapped residents will see a home with cheap rent and decide to take it – without finding out whether it might have been contaminated.
“If (renters) are looking for a bargain, they might move in,” said McConnell.
McConnell also believes there needs to be a way for tenants and contractors to report possible contamination, obtain samples, and eventually have a contaminated property listed.
One Darby resident reported symptoms of possible contamination – watering eyes, suspicious red stains that looked like iodine on the bathroom ceiling – but the tenant had no power to have the building tested under the new program without law enforcement stepping in, according to McConnell.
The undersheriff has asked the Ravalli County Board of Health to create an ordinance to allow certified inspectors and contractors to also report meth contamination, and they are currently looking at the issue, according to county officials.
“The state list itself doesn’t have a whole lot of teeth,” McConnell said. “You’ve got your landlords who just don’t want to hear about it. There aren’t resources for the public.”
Another challenge is the cost of cleanup.
After a meth lab gets busted, the program requires a $2,000-4,000 assessment, sampling tests for meth residue, an on-site screening to detect if vapors are present, and then remodeling or cleaning if possible.
Meth manufacturing is an extremely nasty business. If cooking goes on in a kitchen, appliances usually have to be tossed. Any porous surface – rugs, clothing, furniture – has to be tossed as well. If wall are painted, they might be able to be washed, otherwise they need to be torn out, according to Joe Laudon, a Bozeman contractor trained and certified in October under the state program.
“There’s no way to determine if they’re clean,” Laudon said.
Although some people cooking up meth in a home or motel room believe they can do it in the kitchen and it won’t spread to other rooms, such as children’s bedrooms, the vapors can move throughout the building’s ventilation system.
If a home can be cleaned, the cost is in the thousands. But if it needs to be gutted, the bill quickly skyrockets out of reach of many rural property owners.
Although Laudon was certified last fall, he has yet to go out on a job, he said.
“I received a few calls, but no one has hired me,” he says. “It’s a very, very costly project.”
When the remodeling exceeds the value of the property – which can happen in some economically depressed areas in Montana – Laudon honestly tells landlords they are better off starting over.
“Sometimes they’re best off bulldozing it,” he said. “I’ve advised some people to do that.”
The program’s sponsor in the state Legislature, Christopher Harris, D-Bozeman, said the bill was intended to create standards and train contractors to meet those standards. The cost of the cleanup can’t be the responsibility of taxpayers, Harris said.
The idea was never to hand out money (or) to create a huge subsidy,” Harris said. “It sounds harsh … (but) if I were stupid enough to rent to a meth (user), it’s my job to pay for it.”
In total, seven homes in Montana have been cleaned up through the state program. While many more remain unclean and unreported, Harris argues the meth cleanup legislation has set clear guidelines for homes to become safe and habitable after being contaminated.
“It doesn’t automatically mean there’s going to be a cleanup,” he said. “But if you want to get off the list, you better prove to DEQ there’s no contamination – or it has been cleaned up to our standards.”
By Dana Green