It’s addictive, smelly and hazardous, but it also leaves a big mess.
Often discovered in abandoned homes, methamphetamine labs can cause major headaches for property owners when they are faced with structural or land contamination. However, an emerging meth cleanup industry and a new state law aim to ease the burden.
The spring brings with it warm weather, but also an increase in the labs, according to the Indiana State Police. Cass County is no exception.
“We have found them everywhere,” said trooper Josh Maller of ISP’s meth suppression unit. “The woods, abandoned homes — it just depends on where the individual cook is at.”
Robert McLaughlin, Cass County Health Department director of environmental health, estimates that more than half of the buildings associated with meth production are condemned. Last year, 12 meth labs were seized in Cass County.
The health department sends the property owner a letter to comply after a lab is seized, and the owner is given 30 days to clean and decontaminate it. If the charged meth cook owns the property, a letter is sent to the jail.
McLaughlin said the burden is often placed on landlords, since many meth lab operations are conducted on rental property. The problem can also frustrate farmers when labs are found in remote areas.
New bill to help?
The financial hurdles associated with pollution and the ensuing cleanup led to the writing of House Enrolled Act 1091. State Reps.
Bill Friend, R-Macy, and Don Lehe, R-Brookston, co-authored the bill.
The bill, which will go into effect July 1, aimed to protect farmers against nuisance lawsuits.
But it also contains a provision that will require drug manufacturers to pay damages to farmers on whose land they illegally operate.
Meth cooks will have to pay $10,000, while those who grow marijuana will pay $2,000.
Friend and Lehe introduced the bill after hearing complaints in their mostly rural districts. The Indiana Farm Bureau and Indiana Pork Producers Association were particularly concerned about the problem.
The fees will be mandatory, eliminating the need for a lawsuit and attorney, Lehe said.
“Under current law, there is no requirement (for paying damages),” Lehe said. “There are a lot of things involved in the process. It’s not always something people pursue.”
Not a cheap cleanup
McLaughlin said the initial inspection cost of a contaminated property is up to $1,000.
For the cleanup, costs vary based on the extent of damage and the cleanup company’s quote.
“It’s quite extensive, and it can really add up,” McLaughlin said.
The meth lab cleanup business is relatively new to the U.S. — and it’s booming.
Donetta Held, chief executive officer of Bloomington-based Crisis Cleaning, said business has soared since the company started up in 2007.
The company has seen the number of meth testing and cleanup jobs triple each year its been in operation, she said.
Crisis Cleaning services Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan. It was in Logansport in 2008 to decontaminate a rental house.
"Many times, not only in farmlands, but even at residential homes, meth users dump their chemicals out the back door into the yard,” Held said. “Typically, we'll see dead vegetation where the chemicals have killed the grass. Either case, if we suspect meth contamination in the soil, we collect samples of the soil and have them analyzed by the lab for meth contamination.”
Held questioned the new law, saying she does not see it helping.
“These people do not have money,” she said. “Some pay restitution at like $50 per month, but that's already in place.”
Friend said he understands a meth cook may not have $10,000 in cash lying around, but having a law in place for paying damages is a good starting point.
“You can at least get the judgment against them,” he said. “They may have a car, guns or other valuables that they can sell.”
Tough to find
About a dozen meth labs are seized in Cass County each year, but undiscovered ones are still out there.
Law enforcement officials say it is a difficult issue to combat because labs are portable and can be located literally anywhere.
The strong odor that used to be an indicator of a nearby meth lab is no longer as obvious, Maller said. New cooking methods — particularly the one-pot method — have reduced the smell and made the process easier for drug manufacturers, officials said.
One-pot cooking is a “shake and bake” method where all the drug’s ingredients are placed into a bottle. Authorities say the practice has become more common in the past five years and has made meth manufacturing less complicated, but also more dangerous.
Explosions can occur, and volatile chemicals can be released into the air or spilled.
Logansport police detective John Rogers said many labs are discovered only after they have been abandoned and disposed of.
These “trash labs” are usually made up of common household items like disposed bottles and batteries, but hazardous residue is also present.
Rogers, who also serves on the Cass County Drug Task Force, said this becomes a serious safety issue.
“People will take the remainder of a meth lab and just throw it out,” he said. “They put the burden on the property owner. You also worry about kids finding it and picking things up.”
ISP statistics attributed 53 injuries in 2011 related to meth labs.
The local task force’s most recent meth lab busts occurred Feb. 16 and March 13, resulting in seven total arrests.
The first case involved a meth lab operation at a home on Hillcrest Drive. In the March case, a lab was found in a trailer on Wabash River Road.
But meth lab trash sites have made up most of the task force’s findings this year, with five reported instances in March and April alone.
Whenever a dump site is found, materials are placed into storage by the ISP. Eventually, a private company comes in, takes the hazardous residue and finds a safe way to get rid of it, Rogers said.
This could be done through incineration or other means.
However, there is no telling how many functional or dumped meth labs are out there, still undetected by authorities.
Help from the community in reporting suspected labs is essential, said Cass County Sheriff Randy Pryor.
“We get reports from area residents and farmers that they have a container here and there and suspect a meth lab is on their property,” he said. “It could be a tank or cooler or small vessel that may have a strange odor coming from it. They let us know quite often.”
• Jake Bolitho is a staff reporter at the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5148 or email@example.com.
New methods make it easier to make drug, more labs turning up
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