'We are taking it at face value' 

You've found your dream home, made an offer, paid for an inspection, tested for radon, done everything you should. And in Colorado Springs, that means you've also looked online at the Meth Lab Seizure registry to see whether, at one time, the police had found a meth lab there.

You don't see the address, so you figure you're good to go: Either the house was never home to a meth lab, or it was and has since been cleared by an industrial hygienist.

But in the Springs, does that mean that the house is actually clean?

According to state regulations, the final assessment in the meth lab cleanup process must be provided to the "governing body." In the 4th Judicial District, that governing body is the multi-agency Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence Division, and has been for a couple years.

VNI maintains the meth lab registry and removes properties once they've been cleaned. But what it doesn't do, unlike many other governing bodies across the state, is critically review the work. VNI doesn't perform independent testing to confirm the house has been cleaned, nor does it make available the final assessment to the public.

According to VNI Commander Thor Eells, "We are taking it at face value that this company is providing an accurate report."

He adds that VNI doesn't even file the final decision statements that release former meth labs of liability: "We read it, we verify it, the address comes off the registry, and then that letter is gone," he says. "Our understanding is that there is no statutory requirement to keep these, and to be honest, we don't."

He said, he said

An industrial hygienist must have a "baccalaureate or graduate degree in industrial hygiene, biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, or a closely related physical or biological science from an accredited college or university," or have been practicing within the scope of industrial hygiene since at least July 1, 1992.

Unlike with asbestos abatement, the state does not require licensing for professionals who perform meth lab testing and abatement. And Caoimhín Connell, a Colorado Department of Law-certified forensic hygienist, will tell you there's reason to worry about that.

He says he was hired to review the work of a Springs-based industrial hygienist, Thomas Antonson with Occupational Health Technologies, Inc. Out of that review, he created a document for a client titled "Findings of Noncompliance, Regulatory Misconduct and Professional Malfeasance."

In this document, Connell alleges that in preliminary and final assessments of a property in Fountain, Antonson made "false statements and gross misrepresentations that may rise to the standard of criminal activity on the part of Occupational Health Technologies Inc." The 46-page review cites numerous state regulations apparently ignored in Antonson's reports.

For example, Connell notes, the state tasks the industrial hygienist with retrieving and reviewing law enforcement records regarding the meth-lab bust on the property. Such records provide critical information — including "the manufacturing method, chemicals present, cooking areas, chemical storage areas, and observed areas of contamination or waste disposal" — and should influence how testing occurs.

In his report, Antonson states that "the owner of the property has not disclosed a copy of the Colorado Springs Police report regarding the incident." So it's not used in the review.

Asked if he would like to discuss Connell's allegations, Antonson declines, pointing out that Connell doesn't have a college degree and that Antonson doesn't feel the need to answer his claims.

Connell, who helped craft the state's requirements for meth-lab cleanups ("Toothless," cover story, Oct. 27), and is specifically acknowledged for his input in a 2005 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment document, dismisses Antonson's reply as an ad hominem attack. The reality, he says, is that Antonson can't defend his work.

A step forward?

Connell says he was the "primary barrier" to the state requiring certification for industrial hygienists. His argument back then was that the field was small enough, and self-monitored well enough.

It's a position he now regrets.

"There are so many unethical and incompetent industrial hygienists performing work, now something needs to be done," he says. "Does the state now need to regulate it? I think so."

Antonson says he pays $5,000 a year to maintain his state certification to perform asbestos abatement, and opposes state certification for industrial hygienists working with former meth labs. "It would cost me another $5,000," he adds.

Local governing bodies can ensure that meth-lab cleanups are sufficient by doing the final testing, as the Tri-County Health Department does for Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties. That department reviews cleanup plans and reports by the cleanup company, then does the final sampling to validate everything, says environmental health director Tom Butts. The cost is $850 a case, and $75 a sample.

With VNI not doing this, El Paso County Public Health might, says Tom Gonzales, environmental health services director. He says the county could reinstate the department's meth-lab program, which was shelved in 2009, and take back the governing-body responsibilities from VNI.

Gonzales says that he is working closely with stakeholders, such as realtors and VNI, as well as with Butts, and hopes to have a proposal by the first of the year.

Says Gonzales: "We feel like we're not really serving our community as best we can."


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