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The Meth Menace: W.Va. lawmakers seek fix for drain on crime victims fund caused by meth lab claims

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia lawmakers are reviewing a six-year-old law that allows the state to reimburse property owners for meth lab cleanup costs through a fund initially set up for victims of violent crimes.

"There's been talk of eliminating that as a source of funding to clean up meth labs," said House Speaker Tim Miley. "We recognize it needs to be addressed as there soon will be little if any funds remaining for victims of other crimes if we continue to pay money out of it to clean up meth labs."

The review follows a Sunday Gazette-Mail series, "The Meth Menace," that revealed meth labs claims are gutting the West Virginia Crime Victims Compensation Fund's reserve account.

During the past fiscal year, the fund paid out $717,000 for meth lab claims, a record amount. The crime victims fund is on pace to pay more than $1 million this year on nearly 200 meth lab claims. The fund distributed about $38,000 in 2008.

"The meth lab problem is far bigger than we imagined, and our imaginations now have been supplemented by real facts, real statistics," said Don Perdue, D-Wayne, chairman of the House health committee.

House and Senate leaders have been meeting with administrators of the Court of Claims, which oversees the Crime Victims Compensation Fund.

"It's extremely disappointing that the meth epidemic has reached these proportions to where the cost of cleaning up meth labs is draining the crime victims fund," Miley said. "It's reflective of an epidemic here in the state of West Virginia that we really need to deal with."

Senate President Jeff Kessler said he was alarmed to learn that meth lab claims were gutting the fund. 

"It's a significant problem that needs a solution," Kessler said. "The cost of meth cleanup is significant."

West Virginia law enforcement agencies have seized more than 500 meth labs this year, the most in state history.

In 2007, as meth labs began to proliferate in West Virginia, the Legislature passed a law that allows property owners to file claims with the state to help pay meth lab cleanup costs. The state will reimburse those expenses only if landlords weren't aware meth was being manufactured on their properties. The program's purpose is to make dwellings livable again. West Virginia is the only state to reimburse meth lab cleanup expenses through a crime victims fund.

"The crime victims fund was intended for people physically harmed by a criminal act," Perdue said. "While the landowners are fiscally harmed, I don't think it actually fits in the crime victims fund. It needs to be somewhere else."

Eighteen states direct property owners to pay all cleanup costs. Other states require convicted meth manufacturers to pay for the cleanup.

Six states have remediation funds that help local governments clean up the clandestine labs. In Virginia, the fund receives proceeds from fines paid by convicted meth makers.

"To eliminate that [meth lab] claim from being made would put us with the majority of states," Miley said.

Perdue and Kessler said they don't want to leave property owners on the hook for paying all meth lab cleanup costs.

Initially, West Virginia's crime victims fund paid $5,000 for cleanup expenses. State lawmakers raised the reimbursement amount to $10,000 two years ago. It costs about $17,500 to clean up a one-bedroom house contaminated by a meth lab.

"So long as methamphetamine labs are as prolific as they are and as costly to deal with as they are, then the state is going to have to be able to assist people who are damaged, either in the form of direct financial assistance or some other way that's not apparent to me yet," Perdue said. "We can't ignore it."

The Legislature passed the 2007 law that allows property owners to file claims through the Crime Victims Compensation Fund after the federal government stopped funding states for meth cleanup expenses. Lawmakers wanted to ensure landlords didn't have to shutter properties or lose them through foreclosures.

"I'd prefer to make the properties productive again by remediating them," Kessler said. "We're going to end up paying sooner or later."

To pay for the increase in meth lab claims, the Court of Claims has tapped a reserve fund for the past several years. The reserve fund was set up to pay out injury claims after a catastrophic event, such as a school shooting, natural disaster or terrorist attack. Because of meth lab claims, the reserve fund has dropped from $6 million to $3 million during the past four years.

"The impact is eventually the reserve fund will be depleted," said Cheryle Hall, clerk of the Court of Claims.

State lawmakers are discussing numerous proposals to fix the problem. Among them: 

* Stop paying meth lab claims altogether, or reimburse property owners through another agency, such as the Department of Environmental Protection or Department of Health and Human Resources.

* Allocate additional general revenue funds for meth lab cleanup. "But with the current budget, we don't really have the luxury of doing that," Miley said.

* Approve an excise tax on manufacturers of cold medications containing pseudoephedrine, which criminals use to make meth.

"My gut feeling is that those whose product is causing the problem should be paying for it," Kessler said.

* Require insurance companies to provide policies that cover meth cleanup. "I don't know the necessity of going that route," Miley said. "Is that something we as a Legislature should tell insurance companies to do, or let insurance companies and their policyholders worry about contamination of properties? It's a road down which it may be difficult to go."

* Decrease meth lab payout limits from $10,000 to $5,000.

* Increase court fees that generate revenue for the West Virginia Crime Victims Compensation Fund.

* Pass legislation that would require people to get a doctor's prescription for pseudoephedrine products that can be converted to meth. The proposal would exclude tamper-resistant pseudoephedrine brands such as Nexafed and Zephrex-D, which can't be cooked into methamphetamine. Meth lab seizures declined significantly in Mississippi and Oregon after those states adopted a prescription requirement.

"It seems to me the obvious solution would be to make pseudoephedrine that can be made into meth prescription-only," said Dr. Dan Foster, a former state senator who headed a Kanawha County task force that recommended a prescription-only bill. "In other parts of the country where this has been done, there have been dramatic declines in meth labs."

Perdue plans to introduce a pseudoephedrine prescription bill during the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January.

"We've always talked about meth lab costs in the abstract sense," he said. "We didn't have the numbers we have now. It's clear all of our suppositions were short of the mark."

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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