Saturday, August 20, 2011
Christiansburg aims to clean meth houses
The town wants to establish a formal policy requiring homeowners to make residences safe if they had been used as meth labs.
The Roanoke Times | File
With an increasing number of meth labs discovered within Christiansburg — including the lab found 180 Mill Lane across from the Christiansburg Aquatic Center in April (above) — town officials are looking to set a formal policy obligating homeowners to ensure proper cleanup of those homes before new tenants move in.
The town of Christiansburg is taking steps to ensure that homes tainted by the production of methamphetamine are made safe for new tenants.
Town Council is considering a policy that would require homeowners to clean up clandestine lab sites within 60 days of the sites being declared unsafe by the town building official.
If not done, the owner could be charged with a misdemeanor and billed for a thorough cleanup by a certified company.
"We want to take every step that we, as a government, can to make it safe for residents," Christiansburg police Capt. Chris Ramsey said.
Christiansburg spokeswoman Becky Wilburn said the need for a formal policy has come to light as an increasing number of labs have been found within the town and officials have become aware of the potential danger of lingering chemical residue.
The policy was discussed at a council meeting Tuesday. No action was taken, and Christiansburg Building Official Jerry Heinline said he plans to revise the proposed policy after meeting next week with property owners to get their feedback.
Heinline said he doesn't know of any other locality that has such a policy, though he said he is talking with Blacksburg and would like to see a standard policy for all of Montgomery County.
He said 22 states, including West Virginia and North Carolina, have statewide regulations for such cleanup, but Virginia does not. While town code addresses unsafe buildings, it does not specifically address meth labs.
"This is a learning situation for, I think, everyone involved," he said.
"We'll be looking to see what happens with Christiansburg," Radford police Chief Don Goodman said.
The number of meth labs found statewide has grown in recent years as new, easier methods to make the drug have been developed.
Christiansburg Town Councilman Cord Hall, who serves as a guardian ad litem for children, said he has seen the effects meth production can have.
"Children get extremely sick," he said. "It's a horror what the children go through," including respiratory problems, he said.
Heinline said he became involved in overseeing remediation earlier this year, after federal grant money used for initial cleanup ran out and the cost fell to localities.
The policy will put the responsibility on the homeowner to fully remediate the property. An air quality sampling will be taken and a property inspection completed before a new certificate of occupancy will be granted.
Although cleanup of labs wasn't previously supervised by the building inspector, Ramsey said he didn't know of any cases in which the property owner didn't have a site properly cleaned.
"I haven't run into one yet who said, "What if I don't do it?" Ramsey said. "But that day is going to come."
Twelve active or former labs have been found in Christiansburg within the past year.
When a lab is found, police first conduct an investigation. Then, a company certified to handle the dangerous chemicals involved removes them at the expense of the locality.
After that, the building official declares the building unsafe. That's when the clock begins to tick for the homeowner to remediate the property, which can include removing the drywall and carpeting and having the plumbing and heating and air systems cleaned, Heinline said. The scope of cleanup depends on what type of lab was found.
So-called "shake and bake" or one-pot meth labs, in which meth is made in plastic soda bottles, produce far less toxic gas than traditional labs in which meth is cooked on the stove, Ramsey said.
Heinline said he isn't sure a 60-day timeline is feasible for homeowners to finish cleanup. He thinks 90 to 120 days may be more reasonable.
If a property is vacated, a 60 day timeline is "probably enough," said Bob Poff, president of Valley-Wide Management.
But owners don't have the right to dump out their renters' property after a lab is found, he said, and may have to go to court to get an order of possession. That process alone can take a month or more.
Poff said he has never had to deal with the aftermath of a meth lab on his property, which can cost as much as $15,000 for proper remediation.
"From a health standpoint, I agree it needs to be done," he said. "Someone has to bear the cost. I hope I don't ever have to deal with it."
Heinline said he doesn't want to create a burden for property owners with the policy, but is concerned for the safety of new residents.
"I don't want to issue a new certificate of occupancy to a house," he said, "and find out two years later someone is sick and they think it's due to leftover methamphetamine residue."