The number of Spokane houses polluted by residents cooking methamphetamine has tumbled, with no meth houses uncovered in the first three months of the year. That means homebuyers are less likely to purchase property where amateur chemists have made the illegal and dangerous drug.
The drop in meth houses, documented by state and local officials, is dramatic. Seven years ago the number of illegal drug labs uncovered in Spokane County reached a high of 248, according to the Washington Department of Ecology. That doesn’t necessarily mean no one in Spokane County is cooking meth, said David Swink, director of environmental public health at the Spokane Regional Health District. He recently told health board members that meth use remains problematic.
But meth labs are being stamped out due to tougher criminal sentences, state laws regulating the sale of meth ingredient pseudoephedrine, better collaboration and education among retailers, and emboldened neighbors who report their suspicions.
Yet the biggest cause for the drop may be pure economics: Imported meth from Mexico is so cheap and plentiful that there’s no financial incentive for addicts and dealers to make their own, said Paul Savage, an environmental health specialist with the health district. The problem with drug labs exploded about nine years ago.
As police raided homes where meth was made, health officials boarded them up to prevent others from coming into contact with the toxic residue of the manufacturing process. That left some neighborhoods riddled with properties where lawns went to seed and sheets of particleboard covered windows and doors.
Numerous small businesses sprouted to decontaminate the houses, which typically are rentals. At about $6,000 to $7,000 to clean a regular house, it was a lucrative business while it lasted.
Today there’s only one state-certified contractor left in Eastern Washington that handles meth houses.
“It’s not our core business anymore, I can tell you that,” said Jason Moline, a biologist with Able Clean-Up Technologies Inc., which was founded in 1999.
Last year, Able cleaned a mere three houses. This year the number so far is one.
Able adapted and today is mostly involved in environmental clean-up work and disposal.
When a drug lab is uncovered, health officials include the information on the deed.
Even after houses are given a clean bill of health, the deed continues to carry the evidence of the home’s past.
State disclosure laws require home sellers, including Realtors, to inform buyers of the home’s drug history before money changes hands.
Spokane County Commissioner Mark Richard, who’s also a health board member, said after a recent health district meeting that he continues to have concerns that homebuyers aren’t fully protected by the disclosure rules. He noted that a majority of homes where meth has been cooked or smoked have not been busted, and thus not reported.
The health district’s Savage, standing outside a Park Road home that has been posted as unfit until decontaminated, said homes are more easily salvaged than in the past.
Horror stories of homes having to be stripped to the studs were caused by a manufacturing process that allowed chemicals and metals to affect floors and sheetrock – a process that hasn’t been used as much in the last decade. But cleaning a meth house still requires that it be stripped of anything permeable, such as carpets, curtains and furniture.
As Moline, of Able Clean-Up, puts it: “Remove everything that’s not nailed down.”
Replacing those items, in addition to the costs of the cleanup, equals an expensive experience.
And since most drug labs are found in rental homes, the landlords are stuck with the bill.
“I’ve talked to some pretty unhappy people about their rentals,” said Savage. The home on Park Road is in poor shape.
The family of the jailed homeowner has attempted to clean it up on their own and sell it, but it still sits boarded up across the busy Spokane Valley street from Centennial Middle School.
“We’re not seeing many of these anymore,” said Savage. “As for this house, I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”