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When no one enforces meth-lab laws, renters find an ugly monkey on their back

Celina Allen did what she thought she had to do and called the cops. Within a matter of days, she and her family were evicted from their apartment, and all their possessions were seized.

In Colorado Springs, there is little to prevent you from moving into a former meth lab, and even less protecting you if you do. The address of every lab known to police, and considered "unremediated" — not cleaned to state standards — is available on the Meth Lab Seizures registry, a list buried within the Colorado Springs Police Department's website. According to state law, the uncleaned site of a former drug lab is a potential health risk and a "public health nuisance," not to be entered or occupied. By local ordinance, the property can be condemned, and entering such a property can lead to fines and jail time.

These laws, however, are largely unenforced. It's up to you to check the little-known registry, and if you don't, you may never know the potential risk to which you've exposed yourself or your family.

Or, like the Allens, you might find out the hard way.

Last July, Celina, her husband Carmine and their three kids moved into the downstairs apartment in a split-level duplex at 2033 Mount Washington Ave., in a residential neighborhood not far from the Southgate area. Carmine found the apartment after weeks of searching, and liked it enough; it's on a quiet street close to his work, and the price was right.

He laid out a big piece of red carpet in the garage off the apartment. Their youngest child, still a baby when they moved in, could lie around while her 4-year-old brother and 3-year-old sister busied themselves with toys. Carmine figured it would be a perfect playroom during the winter months.

After they were all settled, Celina says, a neighbor asked if the landlords had cleaned up the house, telling her "there used to be a lot of druggies that had rented out the apartment."

The renters upstairs, a couple who had lived there for years, asked the Allens if they knew about the meth lab.

"I was like ... 'What?'" Celina recalls, her face even now losing color. "There was no mention of a meth lab."

According to the Allens, the landlords never disclosed that the apartment once housed a meth lab. There is no mention of it in the lease. They wouldn't find out until weeks later that in 2004, police had raided the apartment to find, as was reported at the time, a meth operation twice the average size — capable of producing meth seven days a week. The center of the operation was the garage.

Celina had tried to find out more information on the apartment, she says, "but you don't really know how."

Finally, in November, it all snapped for Celina. She was bringing in the groceries. Her car was parked in the driveway, which is situated behind a row of shrubs, and the two women walking down the street couldn't see her.

"And I heard them say, 'I cannot believe that there are people living in that house,'" she says. "And I almost threw up."

She called the police, but they couldn't help her, she says. She contacted city code enforcement a number of times, leaving messages, and finally shot off an e-mail, stating that she had heard that her apartment was a former meth lab. That worked.

What followed was a whirlwind. An officer with the Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence Division contacted her, telling her to expect a visit. Soon a VNI officer appeared and told Celina that her family would have to move out. Celina wasn't told when, just within the next couple days. She was told that they would have to leave most everything behind.

Celina remembers the officer's surprise: "You have kids in here?"

Many houses, little time

In his report, dated Nov. 17, 2010, VNI Detective Chace Passanante made clear that the Allens' apartment was legally uninhabitable.

"I would note that once a location has been certified as having been mitigated, it is removed from the website," he wrote. "The fact that this location is still on the website would indicate this location has not been mitigated and is still contaminated. Therefore, this residence is illegal to occupy."

Passanante informed Celina that she would have to vacate the residence "at her earliest possible convenience," and that she could take only minimal possessions, such as clothing that could be cleaned. Everything else was potentially contaminated with methamphetamine and associated chemicals, and would have to stay until it could be professionally cleaned.

Celina packed her kids' backpacks with some clothes and toys. She and her husband grabbed some clothing for themselves, but left behind everything that a young family with three small children spends years acquiring — furniture, electronics, toys, kitchenware, heirlooms — and found themselves essentially homeless.

The upstairs tenants also were forced out of the house.

The police placed a placard on the door of the home, stating that the building was condemned and unfit for human occupancy. Anyone found to be violating this order could face up to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail. Removal of the placard carried the same penalty.

All this was done in accordance with laws passed in 2004 and 2005 by the Colorado Legislature. Back then, to deal with a flood of housing contaminated by the cooking of meth, lawmakers laid out a number of new restrictions.

According to Article 18.5 of the Colorado Revised Statutes, an illegal drug laboratory "shall" be deemed a public health nuisance, and the property owner is required to take one of two actions: demolish the property, or clean it to state Board of Health standards. Until either requirement is met, the owner "shall not permit any person to have access to the structure or vehicle unless the person is trained or certified to handle contaminated property pursuant to board rules or federal law." Further, the owner will maintain liability for any injury stemming from their uncleaned property.

Enforcement is left to a local governing body designated by the local city council or board of county commissioners. Or a local public health agency, building department or law enforcement agency can take up the task.

In Colorado Springs, VNI is the governing body and has been since 2009, when the county Public Health department shelved its meth-lab program. As such, it can enforce the state statute in a number of ways, from limiting entry to unmitigated properties to charging a reasonable fee for inspection and testing.

However, all VNI currently does is maintain the registry. It takes no proactive role in ensuring that the properties are unoccupied; only if a neighbor or the occupant tips them off to illegal occupancy will officers respond.

This is the most that VNI can do, says Sgt. Lori Harrell, who oversees the program. She's responsible for a multi-jurisdictional team that focuses on narcotics investigations, including prescription drug fraud, and while she can see the need for greater oversight of former labs, she says VNI is already spread too thin.

"I'd need another team just to handle the meth houses," she says.

As of Oct. 24, 367 addresses were listed on the local registry. (See below.) These are properties, as Harrell points out, that haven't been cleaned to state standards since a 4th Judicial District law enforcement agency took a case report there for manufacture of methamphetamine. Those reports stretch back to 2001. The addresses, a few of which are duplicates, include motel rooms, units in storage warehouses, residential property, and trailer park lots. A number of these addresses were the nearest to a traffic stop in which meth-production materials were discovered.

But more than 200 of them are residences. According to the El Paso County Assessor's Office, 150 of the addresses in the Springs have the tax bill mailed to another address — a sign that the property is unoccupied or a rental.

In a visual investigation of 20 addresses in and around Old Colorado City, the Indy found only one building that had been demolished, and two others clearly abandoned. One apparently is being remodeled. Six other houses appear likely to be occupied; they have blinds or blankets in the windows, cut grass or trimmed shrubs. Half of the houses are almost surely lived in; these are houses with laundry on a clothes line, children playing in the front yard, cars parked in a driveway, and at one, a trampoline.

Victimhood

Maybe nine years ago, Mark Force says, he rented the downstairs apartment at 2033 Mount Washington Ave. to what seemed "a nice, young couple." He knew the mother of the young man, and she had mentioned to him in passing that her son was looking for a place to live, so he suggested the apartment.

The couple had a small child, and an infant. They seemed perfectly normal, he says. Family friends. Mark and his wife, Kathleen, even went to the baptism of their baby.

"And they put a meth lab in our home."

Eventually, police caught up with the tenants, and the Forces were left with a contaminated apartment. So they set about cleaning the property in accordance with the standards at the time.

"We removed all the carpets. We cleaned and painted," he says, "power-washed all the walls in the garage. And we were told that, 'OK, you've done your job.'"

They began renting out the apartment again. But this was in 2004, the same year that Gov. Bill Owens would sign into law House Bill 04-1182. Once this law was passed, the Forces would find all their remediation efforts moot. They'd have to follow the new, strict regulations, or their property would remain on the registry.

Caoimhín Connell, a Colorado Department of Law-certified forensic hygienist and deputy with a rural sheriff's department in Colorado, was a member of a stakeholders committee that helped write the new cleanup regulations. As he explains, to bring a property into compliance, three things must occur.

First, there must be a preliminary assessment of the property performed by an industrial hygienist. This is the information-gathering stage, identifying the extent and type of contamination.

Next, a decontamination company steps in to perform the actual cleaning.

The third step, and possibly final step, is for an industrial hygienist to re-test the property, attempting, as Connell puts it, "to prove the remediation contractor failed to properly clean the property."

Once the owner has met the protocol, and provided the local governing body with the proper documentation, the statute states, the owner will be absolved of any future civil claims for health issues from future owners of the building or renters.

It's an extremely high standard, Connell says. And it's tough to immediately identify what it'll take for a given property to meet it.

As he explains, "the processes that occur in a meth lab are so wildly different, and the variety of chemicals and equipment varies so wildly, and the kinds of contamination, and the degrees of contamination, and the kinds of structures involved, are so vastly different, it becomes impossible to predict the general environmental fate of any particular contamination case."

Add to that the time elapsed since the meth lab was active; the differences in the style and construction; where in the house the meth was cooked, and for how long; and the number of families who have come through the house. All can affect the remediation.

According to Connell, the preliminary testing for a 2,000-square-foot house can run $1,500 to $2,500. But the real cost is the cleanup, which can be anything from tearing out carpeting and sheetrock to gutting the house to the studs.

"Imagine two identical meth lab houses right next to each other," says Connell, "identical in every respect, except degree of contamination. In one house the contamination is restricted to the closet in the master bedroom. In the other house, the contamination is throughout, and the surrounding yard and crawlspace are contaminated."

Cleanup fees for the first house might be $1,500, he says. For the second, it could run up to $200,000.

Likewise, the verification testing varies. Connell says that he has seen this cost run anywhere from $1,000 to $23,000 in the Springs.

From his experience, he says, the average cost to mitigate a 1,500-square-foot house to state standards, from beginning to end, is around $26,000.

Force says that he isn't exactly sure how much he and his wife spent before their property was finally removed from the list earlier this year: "I'm afraid to add it up, honestly." Their savings accounts are drained, he says, and they've put $40,000 on credit cards. He says they've also spent $4,000 to have the Allens' possessions cleaned. "It's just been a horrible situation for us."

The real victims, says Force, are the homeowners who are forced to pay for the cleanup. Insurance companies, he found, won't assist.

"If the state is going to pass a law like this, they really need to make it so that people can deal with them. Not just pass a law and leave everybody hanging," he says. "If you are going to pass a law like this, then you are going to have to say that insurance companies are going to be responsible, or something, some kind of help."

Fuzzy science

There is nothing in the law that explicitly states a landlord must inform a tenant of a meth lab. But, as Connell argues, try to imagine any reasonable scenario in which a landlord knowingly rents out an uncleaned drug lab: "It cannot happen and be consistent with statutes."

The Allens say the Forces never told them about the lab. Mark Force says all the tenants of both apartments from 2004 forward did know about it, and that no one seemed concerned.

"Everyone knew it, number one," he says. "But number two, my wife absolutely did tell [the Allens]."

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, "Acute (short-term) exposures to high concentrations of some meth lab chemicals, such as those law enforcement officers face when they first enter a lab, can cause severe health problems including lung damage and burns to different parts of the body. Chronic (long-term) exposures to low concentrations of meth lab chemicals can also cause health problems, such as cancer, and damage to the central nervous system, liver, or kidneys."

But Force says the scare over meth labs is overblown.

"Methamphetamine is just the toxin du jour," he says. "We've gone through radon, and we've gone through lead, and we've gone through asbestos, and this is just the current one."

Dr. Rob Palmer, attending toxicologist for the Rocky Mountain Poison & Drug Center, does note that there's not a single case reported in a medical or scientific journal of an individual injured by re-occupying the space where there once was a meth lab.

Palmer has been studying meth labs since the early 1990s, and says that most of the information on them has come out in that time.

"We don't have decades and decades of data, like we have, for example, for heroin," he says. For instance, there is nothing conclusive about how contamination from a former meth lab might affect a developing fetus or an infant.

"The short answer is, 'We don't know.'"

However, as Connell points out, we are aware of the negative health affects associated with the "soup of contaminants" — iodine to lead to mercury, all of which can be fatal in large amounts — left behind by a meth lab.

Children are at especially high risk, due to their smaller body mass and tendency to put things in their mouths, he says. "Developing children are more susceptible to the systemic lead, arsenic, mercury and iodine residues that can be expected to be left behind."

If a child shows slow intellectual development, Connell argues, nobody is likely to conclude that a former meth lab injured the child — even if the problems are actually due to lead exposure. "In fact, the child's abnormal development will probably not even be reported."

It is for this reason, he posits, that injuries don't appear in medical journals.

Regardless, he adds, lawmakers have agreed that there's enough danger out there to justify having safeguards on the books.

"And that's precisely why we chose the standard," Connell says, "so that people would know what they have to do, and there is no ambiguity. A landlord does not have the opportunity or the leisure of picking and choosing — they must follow the standard."

As for Colorado Springs being hands-off enough to allow the Forces to rent out their "public health nuisance" for nearly seven years, Connell uses this analogy to describe the way he views the city's responsibility: "I'm a state trooper, and I am sitting out on a highway, and I spot a car coming into a school zone going 70 miles an hour. Am I under any statutory obligation to contact that driver and enforce the speed limit? No. I have statutory authority to do it, but I am under no statutory obligation to do it."

What happens, he asks, if that driver causes a wreck and an injury, and it comes out that a trooper had clocked him at 70?

"Was it a failure to perform his duty that resulted in an injury?" he asks. "Somebody is going to argue that had that cop done his job and stopped that car from speeding, that that injury wouldn't have occurred."

VNI, he says, has not only the authority to remove tenants from known meth labs; it could also level fees or fines.

"State statute says that you have the authority to set up an office," he says, "and charge to cover the costs of that office."

This is similar to how Colorado Springs handles condemned houses on the dilapidated buildings list. Once a house winds up on that list, the code enforcement department is able to charge $500 for a quarterly inspection.

As code enforcement director Ken Lewis says, they try not to let people into former meth labs. He thinks those properties should be on the dilapidated buildings list. The buildings would first have to be made vacant, which would take coordination with police, and support from the mayor. But, as he says, "those people shouldn't be there until the owner of the property proves that it is safe."

Justice for none

The Allens had moved to the Springs solely for Carmine's internship at The Broadmoor, and when they were "constructively evicted," had no local family or friends to call upon for help. The Forces did offer another apartment, just as they had done for the renters upstairs. But Carmine says they had little interest in doing more business with the landlord.

Fortunately, The Broadmoor stepped in. The resort put the Allens up in one of its furnished intern apartments, and gave them linens, towels and a baby crib.

"It was pretty amazing," says Carmine. "I don't know any other company that would do that, or have the resource to do it."

But they had almost nothing else. Carmine had whatever uniforms he had for work. Celina had an outfit, and the kids had those clothes and toys in their backpacks.

Eventually, Celina would take the kids to move back into her parents' home in Cheyenne, Wyo. Carmine found work at a golf course where his parents live in Windsor, and moved in with them. They lived 50 miles apart for a couple months, with weeks dividing Carmine's visits. In September, Carmine moved to Cheyenne and is hoping to land a job at Sam's Club — a far cry from his career goal of working for the PGA of America.

They say that before they left town, they called the district attorney's office.

Connell argues there are numerous ways to go after a landlord who knowingly rents a meth lab to a tenant without informing them. Reckless endangerment, for one; the statute reads, "A person who recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of serious bodily injury to another person commits reckless endangerment, which is a class 3 misdemeanor."

Sgt. Harrell, with VNI, says that reckless endangerment is a possibility: "If they knowingly rented an apartment without legally cleaning it out, and then re-rented it, knowing that there had been a meth lab in there. ... As far as the black-and-white letter of the law, it would certainly fit."

But according to District Attorney Dan May, there is nothing in state law that would allow his office to prosecute. As for reckless endangerment, May says, "I am not aware that anybody has ever presented to our office, asking us to review under charges of reckless endangerment. ... Just to say that it is a public health risk doesn't rise to the level of the elements of the misdemeanor crime of reckless endangerment. We'd have to show that it isn't a hypothetical that this could endanger you, but we'd have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that in fact this really did endanger the well-being of the people."

The Allens found a similar difficulty when they sought civil action against the Forces. They contacted a few lawyers, and went with Harding & Associates in Denver. The firm took the case, only to drop it a few weeks later. Proving damages and recovering costs was going to be too difficult.

As Phil Harding himself points out, "There's the law, and then there's the economic reality of things."

After learning of the apartment's history, Carmine says he wondered if it was connected to the headaches and trouble sleeping he'd often experienced there, as well as his children's general lethargy and instances of throwing up for no apparent reason. But the family was unable to establish that they had suffered any long-term injuries from living in the house, which is critical for a civil suit.

"If you don't have documented medical damages," says Harding, as a general rule, "that case doesn't have the economics to hire an attorney to go on and sue."

For his part, Mark Force believes the Allens have been totally unreasonable.

"Carmine wants to make everything a drama," he says. "I know that Carmine has got some cute kids and he uses them to the max. They're like little picture plates: 'These are the people that were harmed.' ... You have to prove that there was a damage from methamphetamines."

For the Allens, the harm was moving into a former meth lab in the first place. The harm was being evicted and forced to live off the charity of Carmine's employer. The harm was the disruption to his family's life and career.

And as it is difficult to prove physical harm, no one can assure the Allens that their children are totally unaffected, and will stay that way even years down the road.

"It's a numbers game," says Carmine. "It's a numbers game for the landlords that blows up back in the tenants' face. ... We just want justice. And as of now, there's nothing."

chet@csindy.com

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