CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The small one-bedroom apartment at 623 1/2 Simms Street on Charleston's West Side was filled to the brim with trash.
Three-legged chairs, broom handles, broken bed frames. Enough trash to fill dozens of heavy-duty black trash bags, all of them duct-taped shut to try to quarantine this toxic junk from the everyday trash it would meet at the landfill.
All of it was being hauled away by men and women in white moon suits and thick work gloves, to keep their skin from touching anything in the apartment, where 131 days earlier, methamphetamine had been cooked.
In an adjacent church parking lot, four elementary school boys played pickup basketball, oblivious to the environmental hazard next door.On Nov. 5, the effort to rehabilitate 623 1/2 Simms Street, to make it once again livable, had begun in earnest.
Like dozens of toxic meth lab cleanups across West Virginia, past and present, this one was being paid for by the state Crime Victims Compensation Fund.
The three-decades-old state fund that was originally set up to pay medical and funeral expenses for victims of violent crimes has become overwhelmed with the costs of cleaning up meth labs.
In 2008, after legislators quietly passed a law to reimburse landlords for meth lab cleaning expenses, property owners filed 13 claims. The Crime Victims Compensation Fund paid out nearly $36,000.
In fiscal year 2013, there were 138 claims, paying out $717,000. And after the first three months of the current fiscal year, the fund is on pace to pay more than $1 million.
An increasing share of the state's Crime Victims Compensation Fund -- established to help victims of assault, DUI, murder, sexual abuse domestic violence and similar crimes -- is instead paying to clean up West Virginia's escalating meth mess.
"It's just gotten out of hand," said Becky Ofiesh, chief deputy clerk of the Court of Claims, which administers the fund. "We don't want to pay for these meth lab claims anymore. It's ridiculous."
'How they lived, I have no idea'
Amidst the garbage bags, the headboards, the frameless mirrors, the broken shelving and the endless parade of scrap wood at the Simms Street apartment were small items that hinted of a better time. Poignant reminders of a life before drugs.
A bowling ball. A wall map of America. A sheet of animal stickers: cartoon giraffes, pandas and lizards. A CD with the cryptic handwritten label, "What if it were today."
The apartment housed three people. Or maybe five. The downstairs neighbor isn't sure.
There were five people there, including one juvenile, on June 17, when Charleston Police arrived to execute a search warrant on the suspicion that people were using the apartment to make meth.
That was one of four alleged meth labs found in West Virginia on that day. Police also found one at a hotel in Summersville, at a house in Mabie, and in a backpack in Charleston.
The four adults of Simms Street were arrested and charged with operating or attempting to operate a clandestine drug lab. One, Jamie S. Smith, 41 jumped out a second-story window attempting to flee, and was arrested nearby, according to the police report.
The police found rubber tubing, Coleman fuel, acetone, hydrogen peroxide, other chemicals and multiple jars containing unknown liquids.
"The methamphetamine was being actively gassed off when I arrived on the scene," wrote Detective Clark Greene.
The house was boarded up and condemned, toxic and uninhabitable.
Two weeks later, on July 10, the walls of the apartment tested positive for methamphetamine.
Four people were indicted on the meth charges in late November. The suspects -- Smith, Brian Gillispie, Destiny Schooly and Dana Broyles -- were arraigned last week in Kanawha County Circuit Court.
All pleaded not guilty. A trial is set for Feb. 24. They face two to 10 years in prison.
"How they lived, I have no idea," said Alan McClanahan, who led a team of five people working to clean the contaminated apartment. "It's beyond me. I have no clue how they lived there."
McClanahan has been cleaning up meth labs for 12 years, the last several with Simon Environmental, a six-year-old company based in Kenna.
Simon Environmental is one of 14 companies in West Virginia, and one of six in Kanawha County, that is licensed by the state to treat and clean up buildings that have been condemned as meth labs.
As with many of the meth sites they clean up, Simon's work on Simms Street was paid for by the West Virginia Crime Victims Compensation Fund.
Meth lab claims triple, straining fund
In 2007, as methamphetamine labs began to proliferate in West Virginia, the Legislature passed the Clandestine Drug Laboratory Remediation Act.
It was one of 273 bills passed by the Legislature that year, and it was passed with little notice or fanfare, and no coverage in Charleston newspapers.
The act reimburses property owners for the cost of cleaning up after tenants who were caught making meth on their property, with the goal of making the structure livable again. Initially, they could get up to $5,000 in cleanup costs, but that amount was raised to $10,000 in 2011.
Every pound of meth that is produced creates up to five pounds of toxic waste as a byproduct. When meth is cooked in a residence it renders it unusable.
As more meth labs are found, more houses become unlivable and low-income housing becomes harder to find.
When the law was passed, it was predicted that it would cost about $250,000 per year to clean up meth labs around the state. During the last fiscal year, the fund spent triple that. The number of claims filed and the amount paid has grown consistently every year.
"... It just was never anticipated to rise to the level it has," said Cheryle M. Hall, the clerk of the Court of Claims. "The whole object was to try to make sure these properties are on the market for people to rent."
W.Va. only state to use crime victim funds to clean up meth