Growing number of Eastern Iowa cities requiring meth lab cleanup

Marion City Council approves ordinance requiring meth lab cleanup by property owners

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A growing number of eastern Iowa communities are holding property owners responsible for cleaning buildings where methamphetamine labs are found.

The Marion City Council approved Thursday an ordinance that would require property owners to clean buildings or cars where drugs were manufactured or grown before the property can be used again. Ordinance 13-13 also requires the police to keep a public list of these buildings and cars. Property stays on the list for three years.

The ordinance is similar to codes used in Burlington and Washington to clean drug houses.

“Marion goes a little bit further into what kind of drug is present in the house,” said Larry Caston, Burlington’s housing inspector. Burlington’s ordinance focuses just on meth houses, but Marion’s rules also address marijuana.

“That may be something we need to consider,” Caston said.

When Iowa police agencies bust a meth lab, hazardous materials teams haul away the debris, but the toxic chemicals – including ether, anhydrous ammonia and iodine -- can remain on walls, carpet and furniture.

An Oregon couple recently settled with mortgage giant Freddie Mac after they unknowingly bought a house that had previously been used as a meth lab, ABC News reported. The couple said they had headaches and mouth sores and that their toddler became sick.

Iowa is among a minority of states that do not require home sellers and real estate agents to tell buyers about previous meth contamination, a Scripps Howard investigation showed. Iowa also has no laws requiring cleanup of meth properties, leaving cities to draft their own ordinances.

The city of Washington uses several ordinances on dangerous buildings, nuisance properties and hazardous materials to shutter buildings with unsafe levels of meth.

“We believe the buildings need to be cleaned up and be safe, or be demolished,” Washington Police Chief Greg Goodman said.

Police evacuated three properties this spring for meth residue and are in the process of testing two more, Goodman said. The owner of one apartment complex is working with an insurance company to pay for the cleanup, Goodman said.

When Burlington police bust a meth lab, they also call Caston.

“I believe in it enough that if they bust a lab at 2 a.m., I’ll be there at 2 a.m.,” said Caston, who is called a few times a year to evacuate meth properties.

Burlington’s ordinance requires landlords of meth properties to have the buildings tested by a certified industrial hygienist to verify there is less than .1 micrograms of residue per 100 square centimeters before the building can be reoccupied.

Marion uses the same standard.

Burlington property owners must disclose the past presence of meth before they sell or rent the place for three years after the building tested positive for residue.

Getting rid of meth residue can be as simple as scrubbing the walls and floor or it can require removing drywall, counter tops or flooring. Burlington allows landlords to do the cleanup themselves, but the testing is done by a third party.

Iowa City has considered an ordinance on meth house cleanup, but Senior Housing Inspector Stan Laverman doesn’t think it’s necessary at this time.

“We weren’t going to put something in place for an event that happens so infrequently in Iowa City,” he said.

Cedar Rapids does not have ordinances specifically requiring cleanup or disclosure of meth properties.

Marion Police Chief Harry Daugherty said he’s glad to have an ordinance to hold landlords accountable for tenants who produce or grow drugs.

“We think it’s a safety hazard to have people moving into these buildings,” he said. “You have babies crawling on the floors and if they get into it (meth residue) they’re going to get sick. We don’t want that on our conscience.”

Federal government reimburses Iowa agencies for removing hazardous material from meth labs

The United States Environmental Protection Agency reimbursed 12 Iowa law enforcement agencies $49,800 in 2012 for the costs of removing hazardous materials from methamphetamine labs.

Nearly half of the money, $21,600, went to the Des Moines Police Department. Sgt. Jason Halifax did not immediately provide information about how many labs were covered in that reimbursement.

Iowa City received $3,500 in 2012 for removal of material from two meth labs in 2011, Sgt. Vicki Lalla said. Officers discovered a working lab March 6, 2011, at 1211 Sandusky Dr. and a meth lab exploded causing a fire March 14, 2011, at 2470 Lakeside Dr., Apt. 8, Lalla said.

The EPA reimbursed Cedar Rapids about $1,500 in 2012 for removing hazardous meth debris.

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