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A dirty, dangerous job: cleaning up meth labs September 23, 2010

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 HARRIMAN – Kelly Mynatt steps in when the police step out.

The hazardous-materials crew that responds when police seize a methamphetamine lab removes the lab and its components only. Any further cleanup becomes the responsibility of the owner – who turns to a cleanup specialist such as Mynatt.

Mynatt spent six years removing methamphetamine labs for Eagle-SWS, which handles most local removals for law enforcement. Last year she started her own company, Eco-Ethics.

The job takes her to houses, apartments, motels and trailer parks around the state. Prices so far have ranged from $1,500 to $26,000.

“The main concern is always the safety of the next person,” Mynatt said. “Unfortunately, some houses and cars just can’t be saved.”

Sometimes she finds a few surprises. A walk through a quarantined meth house last week on Oakdale Highway turned up discarded lab components and other leftover drug gear – including needles scattered among children’s toys on the floor.

“That really bothers me,” she said. “It’s an adult’s choice, but when they put kids in a situation like that, it just sickens me.”

On another cleanup, Mynatt uncovered an addict’s stash hidden inside a desk.

“We went through the drawers and found a baggie of meth crystals,” she said. “We moved the desk and found a hidden door. There were two (hydrochloric acid) gas generators inside. You really never know what you’re going to run into.”

Motels, apartments and rental houses make up the bulk of the work. Owners of trailers and cars typically cut their losses.

“Cars are really tricky,” Mynatt said. “If police have found a lab cooking in a car, everything is going to have to be removed and the body sent for scrap. There are so many crevices in a car and so much upholstery you just can’t get it all out. The materials in a trailer are so porous, you have to completely gut it. Most of the people who own trailers about 70 percent of the time don’t do it when they find out what’s involved.”

Tackling the tiers

Cleanup costs depend on the level of contamination, set by police at the time they seize the lab. Officers base their decision on the lab’s size, methods and how long it’s been in use. A series of questions compiled by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservationhelps guide that decision.

TDEC regulations lay out a four-tier classification system for contamination. Tier 1 equals a few small-scale cooks, Tier 4 a superlab.

Most labs end up as a Tier 3 by default. Testing by a state-certified hygienist can determine the exact level.

“The fourth tier never happens here,” said John Nale, a Chattanooga-based cleanup contractor and hygienist. “But a red phosphorus cook will kick it up to a Tier 3, even if it was just once. I always test every single room. Legally that’s not necessary, but it can save a client a lot of money on the total cleanup.”

Carpeting, rugs, curtains, upholstery and anything else porous will be the first stuff to go, bound for a Class 1 landfill. Heating and air-conditioning systems and ceiling fans don’t survive, either.

“One of the worst things is if the central heating or air conditioning was running when they cooked,” said Jerre Hood, a lawyer and cleanup contractor based in Winchester, Tenn. “It blows the stuff all through the house.”

Wood paneling typically has to be stripped. Sheet rock might get to stay, depending on the levels of meth detected by testing.

“If the levels are really high, everything goes, right down to the studs,” Mynatt said.

Sometimes vandals and thieves start stripping early. The house on Oakdale Highway, where police reported seizing a shake-and-bake lab April 25, showed signs of a break-in and further cooking nearly five months later. Lithium strips and other meth-making materials lay in the kitchen sink.

“Once the labs are quarantined, people don’t care,” Mynatt said. “They’ll break in and steal the furniture. If they sell it, the buyer ends up with contamination in their home. I cleaned a motel room once. There was a computer and a video game system on the first visit, and they were gone the next time. I told the owner I hoped whoever took it cleaned it really well and won’t be affected by it.”

A tricky trade

Work won’t begin without money in hand. The nature of the job and the clientele leave little room for handshake agreements.

“A lot of people want to know if they can pay for meth cleanups on installments,” said Donald Feathers, a Johnson City-based cleanup contractor. “If we did that, we’d never get paid.”

Smart cleanup specialists do some checking before they accept a job.

“I’ve been looking at a house and suddenly four police cars pull up,” Nale said. “When you’re cleaning up, it’s a good idea to call the police and notify them first.”

Some cleanup contractors hold an extra certification as hygienists, which means they can test their own work and stamp it themselves as safe. State law allows that, but others say the two roles shouldn’t mix.

“I really disagree with hygienists being able to sample their own work,” Mynatt said. “They know where they scrubbed the hardest. I think there needs to be more monitoring.”

TDEC regulations require prospective cleanup contractors to file a statement of qualification and complete a federally mandated 40-hour course on hazardous waste response, together with a state-sponsored class on meth cleanup.

Critics say that’s too much book work. Others say it’s just the difference between classroom time and hands-on learning.

“Tennessee has one of the longest lists of approved contractors in the United States,” said Joe Mazzuca, operations manager of Meth Lab Cleanup Co., which operates nationwide. “The majority of training has more to do with regulations and requirements than teaching how to clean it up. They don’t teach the quirks of meth residue. Meth is a very, very difficult molecule to remove.”

State officials said they’re working on updating the requirements for certification.

“The original rules the department drafted dealing with methamphetamine cleanup were emergency rules,” TDEC spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton said. “As we learn more about meth-contaminated properties and their impacts on inhabitants, it is important that our rules evolve. We are currently evaluating what works and where improvements or refinements can be made.”

The drafting of any new rules won’t begin before next year, she said.

What’s left behind

When the cleanup ends, testing resumes. State law requires a level of no greater than .1 microgram of meth residue per 100 square centimeters before a certificate of fitness can be issued. Remaining tests check for the presence of hydrocarbons, lead, mercury and other volatile compounds.

Even then, some have their doubts. Experts say meth hasn’t been around long enough for sufficient study on the residue’s lifespan and long-term effects.

“What we do right now probably gets rid of 90 percent of the problem,” said Glenn Morrison, a professor of environmental engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. “We’re trying to establish the risk after that. If you do the right thing during cleanup, you can still have lingering meth. The inner walls are not completely isolated, and that wall cavity can hold on to quite a bit.

“Tennessee’s test is for surface contamination. That doesn’t tell you what the building materials are emitting into the air. Building materials are like sponges that absorb, then re-emit chemicals over time. How much and how fast depends on the building material and the chemical.”

Morrison said he’s working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal research laboratory, on studies that aim to answer some of those questions. He said that doesn’t mean homeowners should panic at the thought of setting foot in a onetime meth house.

“You and I have encountered plenty of meth in our lives,” Morrison said. “Nearly everyone in the country has probably spent a night in a motel room where meth has been either made or at least smoked. Every industrial chemical that’s ever been produced is in our bodies right now in trace amounts. It’s all a matter of concentrations and our ability to tolerate it.”

Mynatt says she’d feel safe living in a former lab that met the state standards.

“As long as it’s been cleaned properly, the contamination shouldn’t come back,” she said. “But every case is different. I’m not going to sit here and say it could never happen.”



  Knoxville News Sentinel




  A dirty, dangerous job: cleaning up meth labs

By Matt Lakin\Knoxnews.com



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