BOISE -- Toxic chemicals embedded into walls, soaked into carpet, melted to appliances; that's what's left in a home meth lab even after police take out the big containers during a bust. Those leftover chemicals can make people sick if not cleaned up.
To protect people who might rent, buy, or simply want to go back to living inside one of these homes, Idaho legislators passed the Clandestine Drug Laboratory Cleanup Act in 2005. The law says decontaminate the house, or demolish it, or don't let anyone live there.
Is the law working?
The law gave the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare the authority to establish cleanup standards and maintain a list of residential properties that police say have had a meth lab and need to be cleaned. Since the law went into full effect nearly six years ago, police statewide have busted labs on 58 properties that went on the list.
Only 14 property owners have gone through the state's cleaning procedure to have anyone live there. That means 44 are still sitting on the list and legally should be unoccupied.
To get off of the list, homeowners must remove all but trace amounts of meth-making chemicals from the property. Things that soak in chemicals, like carpet, have to be thrown out. Health and Welfare estimates the average cost of cleanup is around $5,000, and the cost of testing by a qualified industrial hygienist is around $4,000.
Inside a home meth lab
"It's a chemical smell. It's kind of hard to describe it in words, but it's been described as a cat urine smell type thing. Real pungent," Boise Police Sergeant Michael Harrington said.
Common chemicals found in meth labs include: Drano, Comet, paint thinner, iodine, matches, pseudoephedrine, antifreeze, lighter fluid and acid. Most of the ingredients have hazardous warning labels on their own, and when combined can be much more dangerous and volatile.
"We always wear the suits with the masks. We never go in there without those," Harrington said.
Harrington supervises officers who have to go into the dangerous labs and bring out the evidence. The Drug Enforcement Administration says the federal government helps pay for the cost of removing and disposing of the bulk materials. Idaho State Police say the cost of removing the bulk of chemicals can run $800-$8,000 per property.
"It's all basically removed from the house, but we don't do any cleaning of the house," Harrington said.
If the property is left as is, hazardous chemicals stay long after officers leave the property with the big containers of chemicals. Police are not responsible for doing any extensive cleaning on a property; that responsibility rests on the homeowner.
"The stuff that spills in carpets, that's in the walls behind the stove, because it's baked on the stove, the walls, the condensation that builds up, that's all there. And that's all breathable," Harrington said.
Properties to be unoccupied until delisted
In 2006, Health and Welfare Idaho Indoor Environment Program Manager Jim Faust was tasked with keeping a list of addresses where police say they've found labs. The addresses stay on the do-not-occupy list until Faust reviews industrial hygienist clean-up reports to see if the property is decontaminated.
By law, if an address is one of the 44 on the state's current list, Faust says the homeowner must clean the property and have it certified by state standards.
"Sometimes they [have to] rip up the carpets. Sometimes they have to take the drywall out. Sometimes they have to take the appliances out. It just varies a lot upon each lab," Faust said. "To get their property off the list, what they have to do is have the house cleaned up according to state standards. An industrial hygienist then will come in and do wipe samples and send them to a certified lab."
Faust then reviews the reports to see if the property is sufficiently decontaminated.
People are living in these homes
KTVB checked out nine homes on the list in Canyon and Ada Counties. Doors opened at four homes, proving people are definitely living inside. Three had signs that people could be there. One Nampa apartment still has the police hazardous material sticker on the door from last summer, but a neighbor said she sees people living there. Only two of the nine properties are clearly vacant.
Some of the homes have been on the list for more than five years, and every property owner or renter we made contact with knew the home they live in is on the list. Some of the owners were living there when the lab was found.
Why are they still living there? Why aren't homeowners going through the cleanup process? A frequent answer was the cost of decontamination testing. The testing can be thousands of dollars, which is steep even for people who say they did extensive cleaning. One homeowner believes her large home could be $12,000-15,000 to test, even though she already paid to gut the entire house.
"I think that what they need to do is take it on a case by case basis as to what happened at the properties because five years later this has come back to haunt me. And I've spent $420,000 redoing my home, and now they want us to spend another $15,000 to get it off the list, and I don't think that really makes sense," Homeowner Cathy Mascroft said.
'No punishment, no penalty'
On top of costs, there's another issue: While it may be against the law to live in a home on the list, Faust confirms there are no punishments or penalties for living in one of these homes. Police say they can't stop people from living in the homes either.
Senator Denton Darrington (R-Declo) sponsored the bill in 2005 that created the list and gave Health and Welfare the job of maintaining the list. Darrington says the law was created with law enforcement input as well as the concerns of realtors trying to protect homeowners.
KTVB went to him with the current meth lab property list, which he had not seen until the interview, and asked what he thought of people occupying some of the listed homes.
"I'm just interested in what you tell me because I haven't seen this list before, but no, I guess it's not surprising people are living there," Darrington said.
Darrington explained the law was made not only for public safety from hazardous chemicals, but to protect homeowners and buyers. If the owner cleans the house as required, they are immune from civil claims. Also, the list itself, which is publicly available online, tells potential renters and buyers what they're getting into.
"So far as I know, this has been not only acceptable, but successful. I don't know that it hasn't," Darrington said.
Darrington said he is not inclined to consider changes to the law until police or Health and Welfare say there's a need.
"I've not been approached by those who work in the issues and say we have a problem with the present law. When we have a problem with the present law, we'll address it," Darrington said.
Oregon law carries penalties for living in listed homes
Faust said there has been very little talk of making changes to the law, but knowing people are living in potentially dangerous homes, he says he might want to take another look.
"A couple things they could do to improve the law is to have a mandate that they do have it cleaned up and a deadline for it," Faust said.
Some states do have laws that punish and penalize people for living in homes that aren't cleaned up and certified. For example in Oregon, state health officials say if the home isn't cleaned up within six months, it's listed as a public nuisance. With that, local jurisdictions could choose to sue the property owner.
Also, anyone on the property, even a homeowner, can be arrested for trespassing. If a homeowner is living in the house or rents out the property, there are even more possible penalties including fines and potentially jail time. Oregon Health Authority officials say there have been cases of local sheriff's offices pulling people out of those homes.
Oregon's law also requires homeowners to use a licensed contractor to do the cleaning, which Faust points out would raise the cost of completing a cleanup program.
Idaho considering more meth laws
A new meth crackdown bill is moving through the state's legislature right now and has a committee hearing this week. Senator Joyce Broadsword is sponsoring a bill to help police track pseudoephedrine sales more easily by having pharmacies use an online service to log sales.
"Members of my local law enforcement agencies asked for my help in getting a real time online tracking program in place for Pseudoephedrine sales," Broadsword wrote in an email. "They expressed frustration at the cost and man power time involved in going from pharmacy to pharmacy to pick up copies of the hand written log books the current law required."
She says currently meth-cookers will run pharmacy to pharmacy buying the maximum at each store, eventually gathering enough to make a batch of the drug.
"In my part of the state for example, a team looking to gather enough PSE to cook a batch of meth will go to the 6 pharmacies in Sandpoint, 2 in Priest River, the 2 in Oldtown, 2-3 in Newport, Washington, then travel down to Spirit Lake, Rathdrum, Hayden Lake, and CDA sending 2-3 different folks into each pharmacy to purchase the limit. These different communities are all within 45 miles of each other. The deputy showed me examples of the log books with the same names on the same days from several different pharmacies as proof that it is indeed happening," Broadsword continued.
There will be a hearing in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Thursday.
Federal laws only have voluntary guidelines for cleanup
In 2007, the federal government passed the Methamphetamine Remediation Research Act for the Environmental Protection Agency to create cleanup guidelines. The federal cleanup guidelines are voluntary.