Pubdate: Tue, 25 Sep 2007
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2007 The State
Authors: John Monk And Adam Beam
Bookmark: (Environmental Issues)
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


Poisons Lurk As State Does Little To Notify Public, Make Toxic Sites Clean

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:



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 

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."


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.


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.


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.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom