The meth conundrum: Landlords face nightmare of a problem

At a recent public hearing on landlord licensing by the Logan City Council, 25-year-old landlord Tyson Gerber sobbed as he stood before the council and community. “I have just lost everything,” Gerber said, trying to keep his voice under control. “Everything I have worked for since I was eight.” Two weeks earlier, the young landlord’s apartment building had tested positive for meth contamination. Years earlier, when Gerber started out as a property owner, he had painted walls, cleaned carpets, washed cabinets, anything he could do to earn money for his future. He saved enough to make a down payment for his first property when he was 19. Now, six years later, Gerber was facing a cleanup cost that would exceed his equity in the property. To make matters worse, he still had a mortgage payment, and because the apartment was closed by the health department, he couldn’t collect rent. And the tenants who were responsible for the meth contamination? They split town soon after the incident. “I wanted to sue (the tenants), but my lawyer told me it would cost $10,000; money I don’t have, and even if I won they’d probably just claim bankruptcy,” said Gerber at the council meeting. All this because somebody had smoked methamphetamine inside Gerber’s building. The tenants were never charged with a crime. As the number of illicit meth labs declines in Utah–last year the FBI busted only three–the problem of meth contamination is now based on the thousands of Utah homes where meth is smoked every day. When methamphetamine is manufactured in a clandestine home-lab, noxious chemicals build up on the walls, the carpet, appliances, and heater ducts. Often the drug maker will dump waste on the ground, down the toilet, or will spill chemicals onto the floor. But what about the dangers of residue from smoked meth? In Gerber’s apartment building the levels of meth residue suggested that the drug had only been smoked a handful of times. Yet the cleanup cost him thousands of dollars. What is an acceptable level of meth contamination, and at what level does it pose a risk to future renters or property owners? Renters and state and local health officials answer is “as little as possible.” But it’s the property owners who are paying for the cleanup, and a looser standard would make it easier to bring their properties into compliance. Currently, nobody knows what the right standard is. The current state standard of 0.1 microgram detectable meth residue per 100 cm2 was put into place largely because it was the lowest that laboratory equipment could detect at the time. It was a safety-based standard. === “There’s not a lot of research on long-term effects of meth contamination,” Utah Department of Health Toxicologist Christina McNaughton said in a phone interview. “That current standard was not health-based,” McNaughton said. “We knew that we could detect that amount, and therefore we knew it was the lowest standard. Our first responsibility is to people’s safety.” But now McNaughton and the Utah Dept. of Health are reconsidering that stringent standard for one that is 10 times higher. Property owners whose apartments have been closed may look forward to a loosening of the rules, but will it be safe for the public? Earlier this year the Utah Legislature set aside some funding for the Utah Dept. of Health to conduct research on the health effects of meth contamination, following the lead of other states such as Colorado, which have adopted less-stringent decontamination standards in recent years. The proposed rule change would raise the Utah state meth decontamination standard of 0.1 mcg to one that is 10 times higher: 1.0 mcg detectable meth residue per 100 cm2. The rule can be seen online at, and public comment is being taken until Dec. 15, McNaughton said. (See the top of the document for commenting procedure, and look at page 42 for proposed changes.) In Cache Valley, the Bear River Health Department administers the state’s meth decontamination rules. Jill Parker, public information officer for BRHD, said the standards that BHRD sets are stricter than other Utah counties. Every residence of busted meth-users must be tested, rather than just residences of known illicit manufacturing labs. And if police suspect that meth use is occurring, even if no arrests have been made, they must report the residence to the health department for testing. That was how Gerber’s property came to be tested. His rental property had been visited by police several times on unrelated calls–the neighbor who made the calls says he constantly saw gang and drug activity–but on the final occasion the responding officer saw enough evidence of meth use that he determined he had probable cause to enter the apartment. Though no-one was arrested, the police officer notified the BHRD and Gerber was given 10 days to test the apartment for meth. The test came out positive. As a result, Gerber had to pay to have the other three apartments tested–ventilation systems spread meth smoke to all surfaces in a home–walls, carpets, drapes, heater ducts. The other three apartments came out positive as well. === The only way forward was to get the apartments cleaned, but cleaning a meth-contaminated apartment is expensive and time consuming. The cost to detox an apartment can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. The state cleanup rules are detailed and complex. Just to apply for a permit from BRHD to start cleaning the residence costs $400. Wesley Thompson, principal environmental engineer at Bio-West, is experienced with the problem of meth contamination cleanup. He did it for almost two years. The walls must be washed using oxidizing cleansers, carpet must be discarded, even the heater ducts must be ram-cleaned using a vacuum brush device. Appliances that can’t be cleaned must be thrown away. “It’s a huge burden on the property owners,” Thompson said. Parker said last year the Bear River Health Department tested 20 properties in Cache Valley for meth. Of these dwellings, 11 were found to have meth levels under state guidelines and didn’t need cleanup. The other nine properties were closed until cleaned up. Of those, seven have been successfully remediated. Two remain closed. As for Tyson Gerber, he called for several bids from different cleaning contractors. After comparing prices, he found that his situation, though terrible, wasn’t as bad as he originally thought. His property was re-opened with approval from the BRHD in September after a thorough cleanup. One thing he learned: he’ll do a criminal background check on the next person who signs a lease with him. He’s trying to sell the house, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll make any money on the property after six years of investment. “I guess what I’m asking is, ‘Where’s the justice for me?’” he said at the end of his emotional appeal before the City Council. As more and more Utah property owners face the process of cleaning up after meth addicts, the answer to that question remains to be seen.

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