Meth Menace Part II: Costly cleanup
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
The Victims Compensation Fund gets its money mostly through court costs. There is a $10 fee -- $8 for municipal courts --- assessed to every crime higher than a parking ticket, so much of the fund's money comes from speeding tickets and other minor offenses. Every felony offense brings an additional $50 fee, and the fund receives 20 percent of all DUI fines.
The fund also gets a matching federal grant that reimburses it 60 cents for every dollar it pays out.
But the federal grant will not pay for everything, and it refuses to pay for meth lab cleanups.
To make up the difference, Hall said, the Court of Claims has been tapping into a reserve fund for the last several years.
That fund was being saved in case of a catastrophic event, like Sandy Hook or the Boston Marathon bombing. Because of the costs associated with meth lab cleanups, that account has dwindled from $6 million a few years ago to $3 million now.
"We're having to tap from the reserve account to cover monies we're paying out in meth labs because we're not getting reimbursed by the federal government," Hall said. "And that's what's killing us.
"Somebody has to look at the situation higher than my pay grade and figure out whether it should be repealed, whether some other agency should cover it...It just appears to the Court that the fund cannot continue to absorb that kind of expense."
While several states offer some sort of assistance to property owners, West Virginia is the only state that uses a crime victims fund to help clean up meth labs. Eighteen states require people convicted of operating meth labs to pay for the cleanup. Property insurance plans in West Virginia don't cover the expense.
In fiscal 2013, meth lab cleanups comprised nearly 20 percent of payouts from the Crime Victims Compensation Fund, but the percentage varies widely from county to county, reflecting meth's uneven impact around the Mountain State.
In 24 counties, the fund made no payments for meth lab cleanups. In Kanawha County, 32 percent of victims' payouts were for meth labs. In Putnam County, it was 45 percent.
In Nicholas County, it was 70 percent.
In Barbour County, 98 percent.
In Pendleton, Pleasants and Tucker counties, every penny paid by the Crime Victims Compensation Fund in 2013 went to cleaning up meth labs.
Landlords: 'They say they didn't know'
John Fox owns the building at 623 1/2 Simms Street. He said he had been renting the upstairs apartment to Brian W. Gillispie, 40, for several years.
Fox said he had no idea anything untoward was happening on his property and that he thought Gillispie was working construction. He said he'd seen Gillispie putting in sewer lines on South Ruffner Road, earlier in the summer.
After the raid on June 27, which resulted in Gillispie's arrest, Fox was notified that the apartment was condemned and no longer inhabitable. A couple days later, he applied to the Victims Compensation Fund for help in rehabbing his property.
The two-page application doesn't require much, just some personal information, the relationship between the suspect and the property owner and a brief, first-person narrative of what happened.
When it receives an application, the fund sends an investigator to check on two things: first, whether or not the property owner is a victim. If the investigator deems that the property owner knew or should have known about the meth lab, they are ineligible for compensation.
Only about 10 percent of claims get denied because it's difficult to tell what a landlord knew, or should have known, about what their tenants were up to.
"They say they didn't know," said Oefish, who oversees the Victims Compensation Fund. "It's hard for us to determine. It's just a mess."
Second, the investigator tries to determine the landlord's out-of-pocket loss.
The average payout is about $8,000 per cleanup, and it typically goes straight to the cleaners. That money usually doesn't come close to covering the total costs for the property owner.
The fund will only pay for cleaning, not to replace toilets, stoves and other appliances that have to be thrown away, and not for months of lost rent.
Affordable Cleanup, a meth lab cleaner based in Scott Depot, estimates the total cost to a landlord if a lab is discovered in a small house, at about $17,500.
Palmolive, Simple Green and hydrogen peroxide
Simon Environmental began its work on the Simms Street property on July 10, when they marked off one-square-meter segments of the apartment's walls. They wiped the walls with cotton swabs and sent those to ALS Global, a laboratory in Salt Lake City.
State law requires that a building be cleaned if meth residue is found above 0.1 micrograms per meter.
Rita Simon, who owns Simon Environmental, said in rooms where meth has been cooked they usually find levels of 300 to 1,000 times the legal limit. The next room over usually tests at 20 to 100 times the legal limit.
After the tests came back positive, Simon Environmental returned to the site on Nov. 5, to clear everything out, which took all day.
Two days later, they returned to scrub and power spray every surface of the apartment.
Depending on the type of meth that was made, they'll try a variety of cleaning solutions. Bleach won't work, but Palmolive often works surprisingly well. Simple Green and hydrogen peroxide are also commonly successful. All of the water used in scrubbing the apartment is sucked up with a shop-vac and emptied into garbage bags, which are then sealed before being hauled to the dump.
James Gross has lived with his brother in the first-floor apartment beneath the one Simon Environmental was cleaning, for 15 or 20 years.
Given the age and condition of the building, members of Simon's cleaning crew thought it was inevitable that some of the water, potentially containing still-toxic meth residue, would leak into Gross' apartment.
But Gross said he had nowhere else to go, so the best Simon's crew could do was give him some plastic sheets to cover his belongings.
Gross said he hoped someone better would move in above him.