Montana meth cleanup laws lag behind
It was a perfect home for their growing family. James and Josephine Slack had purchased a small house in a rural neighborhood on Mill Road just north of Helena, Mont. The home had a big yard surrounded by mountains in the distance, ideal for the Slacks’ two young daughters and soon-to-be born son.
They had no idea it was toxic.
It was 2005, the same year methamphetamine use and manufacture pushed states like Montana to enact its first series of laws regarding the cleanup of meth contaminated properties.
It was also the year the federal government adopted the Combat the Methamphetamine Epidemic Act, which regulated retail over-the-counter sales of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and other similar products vital to the production of meth. The bill was enacted in March of 2006.
The following year, almost exactly two years after moving into their home at 1050 Mill Road, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality informed the family the home had been the site of a meth lab busted by police in 2002.
It also had never been cleaned up.
The Slacks, according to court documents, immediately hired a certified meth cleanup contractor, who found the levels of meth contamination in their home to be hundreds of times higher than the legal standard. The company reportedly found many of their personal belongings were also contaminated.
The Slacks were advised to leave their home and its contents behind, and they did so immediately.
The Methamphetamine Cleanup Act was meant to protect the health of innocent members of the public who “may be harmed when they are unknowingly exposed” to dangerous residues left by the production or heavy use of meth. But experts and others worry the law’s voluntary nature and haphazard enforcement have left Montanans, including the Slacks, unprotected.
Lee Yelin, president of Water Rights, Inc. and certified meth cleanup contractor, has been sampling and cleaning meth-contaminated properties for years. His results have helped many families successfully sue agencies that failed to disclose the presence of meth contaminants in court.
Yelin said there are major problems with Montana’s meth decontamination regulations. He said when law enforcement becomes aware of a meth lab, the property is not necessarily boarded up and cleaned as it would be in many other states.
Instead, according to the Methamphetamine Cleanup Act, the property must be reported as a meth contaminated site to the DEQ, which then lists the property on a website until it is cleaned. Homeowners are legally allowed to rent, sell and lease the contaminated property, so long as tenants are informed of the contamination in writing.
But if the house was never busted by law enforcement, or even if it was but before 2005, it’s not on the DEQ’s list. Once a listed home has been cleaned, it is removed from the DEQ’s site.
Yelin said because meth must be absorbed into the skin or ingested to be truly harmful, many adults rent or buy meth-contaminated homes and never develop health issues.
“A lot of these properties are rented and everything is fine. It’s been 12 years since the bust, five different renters and everything is going along fine,” Yelin said. “Then somebody comes in with a toddler and the toddler gets sick. Everything goes in their mouths. That’s the only time we start hearing about these good lawsuits.”
The Slacks, according to court documents, sued Lewis and Clark County in 2008 for failure to provide proper notice under the Methamphetamine Cleanup Act.
Although the county argued it wasn’t obligated to put the Slacks’ home on DEQ’s website because it was busted before 2005, the jury ruled in favor of the family, awarding them almost $600,000 in restitution and damages, and the decision was upheld by the Montana Supreme Court in 2011.
But Yelin said the timing question isn’t even the worst part of Montana’s law. His biggest complaint is that homes where meth has been smoked, rather than manufactured, are not reported to the DEQ or listed on its website. Homeowners can also legally rent, sell and lease those homes without notifying the tenants or buyers of the home’s possible contamination.
Those homes, Yelin said, are some of the most toxic.
“Until we start putting the properties where people smoke on the list, we’re never going to get a handle on this,” Yelin said. “We don’t see as many labs in Montana because most people are buying [meth] and bringing it into the state as opposed to making it.”
Deb Grimm, program manager of the DEQ’s meth cleanup program, acknowledged smoking meth contaminates a home just as much, if not more than manufacturing the drug. When those homes aren’t cleaned, Grimm said, it could be seriously dangerous for future tenants.
Grimm also said the voluntary nature of Montana’s laws can be troublesome.
“It’s like this because legislatures haven’t brought forth a mandatory bill,” Grimm said, adding that the original draft of the Methamphetamine Cleanup Act was mandatory until homeowners and landlords lobbied against it.
Although landlords must inform tenants and buyers of the property’s past as a meth lab, many landlords hold open houses before the property is sold, in which people unknowingly run their hands along meth-contaminated surfaces.
Forcing homeowners to inform buyers or tenants of the property’s contamination is also difficult to enforce, Grimm said, because the DEQ lacks the authority to track and punish homeowners who refuse to do so. If a tenant were not informed of meth contamination, he would have to seek legal justice through a civil lawsuit.
The legislature has considered modifying the law, but it has largely failed to gain traction.
Helena Democrat Mary Caferro at one point went to various known meth labs and asked tenants if they had been notified of the contamination. Most, Grimm said, were unaware of the presence of meth.
“[Caferro] put forth a bill that didn’t make cleanup mandatory, but said the owner of a meth lab could not rent it or lease it or sell it if it were not cleaned. She also added smoking,” Grimm said, adding the bill ended up going nowhere.
Caferro could not be reached for comment.
This left Montana as one of the least regulated states when it comes to meth cleanup, says Joseph Mazzuca, co-owner of the Meth Lab Cleanup Company in Billings. Mazzuca has cleaned more than 5,000 meth-contaminated homes nationally and is a certified training provider in every state where meth decontamination training is required.
He said Montana along with North Carolina is one of the least protected states.
“I think regulation is a great thing when it’s done right,” Mazzuca said. “The problem is Montana’s regulations are a joke, there’s nothing to them.”
Mazzuca said Montana’s standards fail to delineate procedures or requirements for meth cleanups. Instead, the standards outline a few recommended steps within 10 pages. Colorado, a state Mazzuca said has quality guidelines, has a set of standards that run for 38 pages.
Meth Cleanup Program Manager Grimm said the non-specific guidelines are due to unspecified housing situations. One home contaminated with meth could have 50 rooms and electrical baseboard heat, Grimm said, while another may have two rooms and a furnace. Each home, Grimm said, must be decontaminated using tactics specific to that home.
“Every plan is unique in site assessment, cleanup and decontamination,” Grimm said. “That’s why we require two full days of training for meth certified contractors and 40 hours of a hazardous waste course, so they can handle any type of hazardous material correctly.”
Grimm said contractors must also take a refresher course every two years after being accredited through the state.
Still, Mazzuca said other states operate differently, where when houses test positive for meth, they are quarantined until proven to be decontaminated and safe. In fact, Mazzuca said despite Montana’s high rates of meth use, his crew is rarely called to Montana to decontaminate a property because “most homeowners know you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to.”
“So that’s a poor, poor standard if you ask me,” Mazzuca said.
Grimm said the solution should perhaps come from having one federal, nationwide decontamination standard. But the immediate solution, she said, would be to pass a mandatory meth cleanup bill in Montana.
Although Grimm said she couldn’t share her personal opinion of Montana’s current decontamination standards, she said, “We’re favorable of working with any new legislation that could be enacted by concerned citizens through their representatives on this issue.”
(Editor’s note: this story is the final of a series produced by University of Montana journalism students on the impact of methamphetamine use in Montana. Meth Effect stories came from Fort Belknap, Lake County, Bozeman, Helena and Missoula. The series in its entirety can be found at metheffect.com.)