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Senate OKs disconnect of victims fund, meth-lab cleanup

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's escalating methamphetamine lab cleanup costs would no longer drain a special fund initially set up to help victims of violent crime, under a bill passed by the Senate on Wednesday.

The legislation (SB204) comes after a Charleston Gazette investigative series revealed how a staggering increase in meth lab claims is gutting the West Virginia Crime Victims Compensation Fund.

"The problem is, it's consuming the entire budget," said Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley. "We don't want a situation where victims of violent crimes don't get compensated because the money runs out."

In 2008, property owners filed 13 claims, and the crime victims fund paid out $38,000. During the current fiscal year, the fund is on pace to pay out more than $1 million on about 200 claims.

The Crime Victims Compensation Fund, established in 1981, typically pays for crime victims' medical and funeral expenses.

In 2007, lawmakers quietly passed a bill that allowed property owners to file claims with the state to pay for meth cleanup. The fund initially paid $5,000 for each meth lab cleaning. Two years ago, legislators raised the reimbursement amount to $10,000.

"I don't think it should have been in there in the first place," Unger said. "The fund is intended to help people who have been victimized physically -- by a crime committed on their person, not their property."

Senators voted 32-1 for the bill that makes meth lab claims no longer eligible for crime victims funding. Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, voted against.

For the past several years, the West Virginia Court of Claims has tapped the crime victims fund's reserve account to pay for the increase in meth lab claims. The reserve account was set up to pay injury claims after a catastrophic event, such as a school shooting or terrorist attack. The reserve fund has dropped from $6 million to $2 million because of the spike in meth lab claims.

Last year, meth lab costs made up about 20 percent of all payouts from the crime victims funds.

Unger said Wednesday that lawmakers would look for other ways to help property owners affected by the meth lab problem. He acknowledged that meth cleanup is expensive.

"It creates a toxic-waste zone," Unger said. "It creates a dangerous situation, a hazard to the community."

Unger said the Legislature could set up a "meth lab cleanup fund" and put a set amount of money into it each year.

"When the money runs out, it runs out," he said. "It would be something we could better monitor."

West Virginia police officers seized 533 meth labs this year, a record number. They found the clandestine labs in 45 of West Virginia's 55 counties.

Last month, the Senate passed legislation (SB6) to reduce meth labs by requiring a prescription for cold medications containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient. The bill would exempt so-called "tamper-resistant" pseudoephedrine products that can't be easily converted into meth.

"The logic of it is, if Senate Bill 6 works, then we won't need the funds for [meth lab cleanup]," Unger said.

That bill and the crime victims fund legislation next move to the House Judiciary Committee.

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


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