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Meth lab growth hurting hotels, motels

Chris Dorst
The Comfort Inn in Cross Lanes remains closed while health officials test and decontaminate rooms from methamphetamine exposure.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Authorities say methamphetamine creation inside hotel rooms is increasing as crews work to test and clean the latest contamination closure in Kanawha County.

Police and health officials have responded to at least 10 meth lab calls in hotels or motels in West Virginia since January, said Brandon Lewis, state program coordinator for the Clandestine Drug Laboratory Rehabilitation Program. In all of 2011, he said, only two or three labs were found at hotels.

Lewis said meth cooking inside these rooms is troublesome to owners and health officials alike -- and it's a problem that is not going away anytime soon.

Once a lab is discovered at a hotel or motel, owners must temporarily close their establishments while a contractor is called to test and cleanup the contamination. This process can take weeks and even months.

If undetected, the poisonous chemicals in meth can circulate throughout a hotel and can lead to respiratory problems, skin and eye irritation, headaches nausea and dizziness. Short-term exposure to highly concentrated meth can cause severe lung damage and burns to various parts of the body.

On May 18, Kanawha County sheriff's deputies discovered the most recent case at the Comfort Inn in Cross Lanes. Deputies arrested two suspects and charged them with attempting to operate a clandestine drug lab upon finding a Coleman fuel can and a bottle of nail polish remover, common substances used to make meth, inside their room.

The hotel remains closed until a hazardous-cleanup company can decontaminate the rooms to safe meth exposure levels, about 0.1 microgram of residue per 100 square centimeters.

"These cases are definitely on the rise," Lewis said. "People ask me, 'Why do you think they use meth at motels?' It's because people don't want their houses condemned."

Lewis said it's up to hotel owners to pay for meth contamination testing and cleanup, which is required by state and federal law. Most of the time, the hotel's insurance will cover the expenses, he said.

Those without insurance can apply for assistance from the Crime Victims Compensation Fund, a $10,000 allotment set aside by the state Legislature for meth cleanup.

Lt. Sean Crosier of the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department said it's easy for police to detect a lab inside a hotel room by the smell alone, which is a "very strong chemical odor."

"It permeates the wall and goes into the adjacent rooms," he said. "Every time they open the door, I'm sure a cloud of odor escapes their room."

He said most of the suspects stay at the hotels because they have nowhere else to go.

"A lot of these people have overstayed their welcome with other associates and they need to have the power and space to be able to operate the lab," he said. "A hotel is very simple place to do that -- and I think they know eventually they will be caught."

An increase in these cases has changed the way Department of Health and Human Resources officials test hotels for contamination. Before March 16, officials only closed and tested rooms physically connected to the site of contamination, Lewis said.

On that date, four team members from the Martinsburg High School boys basketball team were taken to CAMC General Hospital and later released after being exposed to meth at the Motel 6 on MacCorkle Avenue SE.

Seventeen of the motel's 118 rooms had been closed for contamination, possibly from a meth lab discovered there in January. The hotel unknowingly rented the team one of those contaminated rooms. Everything inside, including the boy's basketball uniforms and personal belongings, was destroyed.

Because of that incident, Lewis said, officials now close the entire hotel after a lab is found. State law dictates that no civilian can be present during this testing.

"We allow them to close down voluntarily," Lewis said, "but they pretty much have to anyway."

Lewis said that, overall, about 103 meth labs have been discovered in West Virginia as of May 21. This number is expected to be on par with 2011, which had 229 labs discovered.

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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