WKYT Investigates: Life after the lab

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - "They told us the components they found in the house were used for that," Allen Graham told us. "And they would recommend me, before I moved in, to clean the whole thing."

Allen Graham's mother owns a rental property in Somerset, where he, his wife, and their three young sons now live. The former tenants were arrested for making meth in the home.

In Kentucky, meth labs are rated on a four tier system by the Kentucky Division of Waste Management. Tier one is the least amount of contamination, and tier four means a mass production lab was found. Investigators rated Graham's home a tier three, meaning meth was cooked there for an extended period of time, possibly for months. And because of that, the house needed a lot of decontamination before it was safe to live in.

Brenda Smith also lives in Somerset, just beyond the airport heading out of town. A tier one meth lab was found in the apartment where she now lives.

When we asked what her landlord did after the meth lab was found, Smith told us, "She could have rented it, but we felt better about going in and cleaning it, so that's what we did."

What did cleaning a meth lab mean for Smith? "I just went in, I done some work on it, she paid me for it, and my sister moved in," she said.

Jerome Crowe owns and operates a mobile home park in Lexington, where in May a tier one meth lab was found in a vacant trailer.

Crowe faced the same problem as other property owners do when meth labs are found contaminating homes. "I can't call up Rosie's Maid Service and have them come and do it," he said.

The dangers of meth labs, both active and post-cook, are well known -- one police official we spoke to compared cooking meth to bomb-making. But people who live in homes where meth was made don't always know what must be done to clean them and make them safe to live in again.

When we spoke to police about how they make sure that these meth homes are cleaned, the response was surprising. "Is there follow up and is it all disposed of properly?" said Lieutenant Scott Blakely, who's with the Lexington Police Department's narcotics unit. "I don't know."

It was other agencies' jobs to know. "We don't clean it up," he stated. "We only neutralize it."

There are agencies that oversee the aftermath, and police departments place a sign on the door of the meth house, to notify that a lab was found in the building.

Those signs are supposed to stay up until a state-certified contractor has cleaned the home to strict standards, on penalty of criminal charges. But that isn't always what happens. "We've had them immediately take the signs down when we leave," Blakely said.

What makes the sign important is that it spells out clearly what property owners are expected to do to move forward, sell the property, or rent it to tenants.

Property owners have several options when it comes to what happens next. "The first option is to have the home decontaminated by a certified contractor," said Kim Greenidge, with the Department of Waste Management. "The second option is to have the home demolished. The third option is to do nothing."

'Doing nothing' actually required doing something … or telling someone. "The laws that are in place right now require disclosure," said Greenidge.

What that means is that if the owner intends to sell the property or rent it out, they must tell the prospective buyer or tenants that the home was host to a meth lab, and no certified contractors have cleaned it. The sign also has to stay up. If it doesn't, and the home's former status isn't disclosed, the owner faces criminal penalties that include a Class A misdemeanor for taking the sign down, and a Class D felony for taking it down and not telling the occupant.

But those penalties are rarely enforced, and it all comes down to resources, and whose job it is to keep tabs on these homes.

"Without the resources to local entities, it's very hard to hand-hold and to watch every single property to make sure they follow and do the right thing," Greenidge said. "Hopefully in the future there will be stronger local ordinances to require items such as this to be followed more closely."

"He just told the landlord that we had to let the renters be aware of what had taken place here," said Smith, referring to the officer who responded to the lab found in her apartment.

Smith said her landlord even cut her a deal to clean out the contaminated apartment she and her sister now call home.

"A hundred dollars," she said, pleased with the result of her work. "A hundred bucks. And she lets me live here."

We spoke to police about the cautions they take when they encounter a lab, and they are stringent. They wear a full-body protective gear called a Tychem suit, which is the base level, bare-minimum protection for law enforcement when they go anywhere near meth lab clean-up scenes. They also use respirators that filter the air in the home. But the people who did the cleaning themselves had no such protection.

"I didn't wear no mask," said Smith. "We kept all the windows open, and the door open."

"I confirmed with the sheriff's department if I could strip it out," Graham said. "And they said sure, as long as I wore a mask and things like that."

We asked Graham if he had tested his work, to be sure he cleaned his home out properly. He said he had not.

But police said that just wasn't enough to be safe, and it certainly wasn't enough for the average person to clean a home to the point where it was free of harmful chemicals. "Those fumes permeate the residence where it's being cooked," Lieutenant Blakely said. "It permeates the fabric, it permeates the walls." And as for the long-term ramifications, Blakely said, "We don't know what the entire effect of all those chemicals are, but we know it's not good."

State officials say that if the home is going to be lived in again by anyone, the best, but not required method is to find a certified contractor to clean it.

"The contractor is trained on how to do this," said Greenidge. "And a person without that training could be exposing themselves to hazardous dangers."

"I've gotta go with one of these companies," said Crowe, referring to the list of certified contractors given to him by the state. "I learned a long time ago, if you do it the right way, the right way is the only way."

But Lieutenant Blakely was understanding of why some people chose to go the riskier route, and clean it themselves. "The reason why they probably don't [use a contractor] is that it's expensive," he said. "You know, a typical response for us is probably around ten thousand dollars. It probably costs equally that much to clean it up."

But cleaning it up without a contractor is still costly, and won't make the home as safe as it needs to be to rent out, sell it, or even just take the sign off the door that states a meth lab was found there.

"It still cost us around $7,300 to replace the sheet rock, painting, and all those things," said Graham, while his young son played on the grass behind him.

The fact is, whether it cost $100, $7,300, or $10,000, there's one right way, and plenty of wrong ways, to make sure your home is safe for life after the lab.

"You have to take responsibility for your property," Blakely said.

Crowe acknowledged, "We'll survive, we'll go ahead and do what we have to do."

Others echoed his dogged outlook, including Brenda Smith. "I just hope it doesn't come back up on our mountain."

Greenidge did tell us cities can adopt their own ordinances that require more of property owners, beyond state law, regarding cleanup and requiring certified contractors.

The city of Richmond adopted one such ordinance back in February of this year.

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