Thursday, February 26, 2015

Dealing with Meth Contamination - A Race to the Bottom in Whatcom County

 [This article by me first appeared on 25  February 2014 on NWCitizen.]

Methamphetamine contamination of homes in Whatcom County is a serious problem that can affect all housing: private homes, rental units and motel rooms. One need go no further than the recent condemnation of the Aloha Motel which had severe meth contamination of many of its rooms, some of which were occupied by families with small children. Just one year ago a rental home on Myrtle St. was condemned as unfit for human habitation due to meth contamination. A short while ago I asked the Bellingham City Council to add inspection for meth contamination to the checklist for rental inspections that is being developed in conjunction with a rental registration program. Council demured.

With this as a background, the Whatcom County Health Department approached the Whatcom Health Advisory Board last May and June asking them to modify the county ordinance on meth contamination of illegal use sites (as opposed to meth manufacturing sites) such as hotel rooms and dwelling units. The Public Health Advisory Board agreed and the County Council is scheduled to consider these changes in a hearing on 3 March. (You can read the agenda bill from 10 February with the draft ordinance here.)

Presently, the mitigation of a contaminated site is the same regardless of whether the site was for manufacture or illicit use of meth; contamination levels are contamination levels in either case. Under current law, the supervision of a mandatory cleanup costs the Health Department about $1,000, and because the department supervises about 15-20 of these remediation efforts per year, they were feeling the fiscal pinch after losing grant money that previously covered the cost. As awareness of possible contamination rises, whether for manufacture or illicit use, the county is on the hook for managing an increasing number of cleanup sites.

The idea behind the new recommendations is to “decrease financial and enforcement barriers to self reporting and cleanup” of these illicit use units - which includes rentals. The changes would substitute “technical assistance” to property owners versus the mandatory cleanup regimen currently used for meth manufacturing. It is not clear how this substitution will encourage property owners to come forward.

The revised county ordinance would also increase permissible levels of meth contamination from .01mg/100 square centimeters to 1.5mg/100 square centimeters, although no level of contamination has been proven to be safe.  Those who have compromised health to begin with can indeed be at greater risk than the general public. [Note: This change in contamination levels is not optional for the county since it must conform to levels stated in the RCW.]

The landlord of the Myrtle St. rental refused to pay for testing of the home when the student tenants reported health problems.  (Read more on this here and here)  The students paid for the tests themselves and discovered a contamination level of 1.4 mg/100 square centimeters, well above the .01mg/100 square centimeters which was the minimum acceptable level at the time. By raising the minimal levels to 1.5mg/square centimeters as in the proposed ordinance, the Myrtle St. property would not be considered contaminated. Not surprisingly, further testing at Myrtle St. at the time by a contamination abatement contractor found levels at 4.2mg/100 square centimeters, well above even the expanded levels proposed to the County Council. Under the current changes, these extremely high levels would never have surfaced and the women would have been left to their own, limited devices.

So who loses under this proposed scenario? The tenants, the hotel room occupier, the purchaser of a home.  With contamination considered anything over 1.5mg/100 square centimeters, the property owner, landlord and hotel management get a pass. Nothing will cloud the property title with respect to meth use sites under the new regime. Furthermore, it all comes down to money: the county will save on abatement management costs and the landlord/home owner will save with more lenient clean up rules. The home purchaser, the tenant and hotel guest will take on more risk. This is a race to the bottom in health management.

Note to readers:  An agenda bill for the proposed 3 March hearing is now posted on the county council's website